KUNDUZ: The United Nations said on Tuesday it was investigating “disturbing reports of serious harm to civilians” in an Afghan airstrike on a religious school that security sources say left a large number of children dead or wounded.

Hundreds of people were attending a graduation ceremony at the madressah in a Taliban-controlled northeastern district on Monday when Afghan air force helicopters struck, according to witnesses.

“Human Rights team on ground establishing facts. All parties reminded of obligations to protect civilians from impact of armed conflict,” the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan said in a brief statement.

At least 59 people, including Taliban commanders meeting at the compound in the Dasht-i-Archi district in Kunduz province, were killed in the attack.

Most of the civilian victims were children, they said. Government officials in both Kabul and Kunduz gave conflicting figures, with some denying any civilians had been killed or that a madressah had been hit. Afghan officials have been known to minimise civilian casualties.

“I myself counted 35 bodies,” Abdul Khalil said at a hospital in the provincial capital Kunduz — more than 50 kilometres from the air trike — where health officials said 57 injured had been taken.

“I arrived at the scene right after the air strikes -- it was like a butcher’s shop. Everywhere was covered with blood, the ground was littered with body parts, heads, limbs and other parts.”

A man called Yousuf, who was at the ceremony when the attacks happened, said he saw “blood and body parts everywhere”.

Television showed anguished relatives standing outside the hospital yelling “Shame on you!”

On Tuesday a defence ministry spokesman distanced the air force from responsibility for civilian casualties, which he had denied existed the – previous day instead suggested the Taliban opened fire on them.

“Half of them (civilians in hospital) have gunshot wounds, hit by light weapons that we didn’t use. We used rockets fired by MD-530 helicopters — how were they hit by bullets?” he said.

But Naim Mangal, a doctor at the hospital, said “all the victims” had been “hit by pieces of bomb, shrapnel”.

“Out of the 100 wounded and six dead in the hospital, none have been hit by a bullet,” he said.

Radmanish said 18 senior Taliban commanders were killed in the air strike on a “training centre” for the group’s elite Red Unit. Another 12 were wounded. Earlier he had said 20 Taliban were killed.

The government has sent two teams to conduct an investigation into the incident, he added.

Police deny madressah hit

Kunduz police chief General Abdul Hamid Hamidi said on Tuesday that “72 of the enemy” had been killed in the air strike.

Hamidi added that five civilians also died and another 52 were wounded, but he denied a madressah or mosque had been hit. Security forces have donated large quantities of blood to the hospital.

The Taliban confirmed the attack on the religious school, but denied that any of its militants had been there.

The madressah was run by scholars sympathetic to the Taliban, but the facility was open to the public, a Taliban commander said.

He said as many as 2,000 people were at the school on Monday, including 750 students, for a graduation ceremony, but insisted there were no senior Taliban leaders present.

Published in Dawn, April 4th, 2018

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