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US, Afghans investigating if airstrike hit civilians

By CHAD GARLAND AND ZUBAIR BABAKARKHAIL | STARS AND STRIPES Published: September 28, 2016

KABUL, Afghanistan — U.S. and Afghan officials are investigating reports that a U.S. airstrike targeting Islamic State militants in eastern Afghanistan killed more than a dozen civilians early Wednesday.

Malik Osman, a tribal leader in the Achin and Shinwar districts of Nangarhar province, said the strike hit a civilian home in Achin district at around 3 a.m. People had gathered at the home to congratulate a man named Haji Raees and his wife, who had returned two days earlier from the Hajj, the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia.

Osman said 13 people were killed, including Haji Raees, his sons, cousins and a tribal leader named Haji Akhtar Mohammad. Another 16 were wounded.

“I am right now at the hospital,” he said. “We brought the wounded here.”

Hazrat Hussain Mashriqiwal, a provincial police spokesman, confirmed the airstrike, but said it killed 18 Islamic State fighters, including a mid-level commander and a judge.

“We sent a commission to investigate whether civilians were killed in the attack,” he said.

U.S. officials estimate the Afghan branch of the Islamic State has around 1,200 members, primarily Pakistani Pashtuns who broke away from the Taliban. The group has established a foothold in several districts of Nanghar, with enclaves in neighboring Kunar province, officials have said.

U.S.-backed Afghan forces have been battling the militants in Achin, where they have established a stronghold, for months. An operation this summer killed an estimated 300 Islamic State fighters, including several high-level commanders and the group’s leader, Hafiz Saeed Khan.

Brig. Gen. Charles Cleveland, U.S. Forces-Afghanistan spokesman, said the U.S. did conduct a counter-terrorism airstrike in the Achin district of Nangarhar province.

“U.S. Forces-Afghanistan takes all allegations of civilian casualties very seriously,” Cleveland said in a statement. “We are aware of some claims of Afghan casualties, and are currently reviewing all materials related to this strike.”

Cleveland said the reports of civilian casualties were being investigated and that more information would be provided “as appropriate.”

The strike came days after Afghan officials accused U.S. forces of killing eight police officers in two airstrikes on a checkpoint in the central province of Uruzgan. U.S. officials said those strikes targeted fighters attacking Afghan forces. Afghan officials are investigating that incident.

garland.chad@stripes.com

Twitter: @chadgarland

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