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KABUL: Rockets and heavy machineguns fired from Afghan government helicopters killed and wounded 107 boys and men attending a religious ceremony near the northern city of Kunduz last month, according to a United Nations report released on Monday.

On April 2, villagers in Dasht-i Archi district of Kunduz said an unspecified number of people, including many children, were killed in an attack on a religious ceremony, prompting the UN to launch an investigation.

The UN report underlined the risks of a new strategy, developed with US advisers, which has seen a big build-up in Afghan air power, with rocket-equipped helicopters and attack aircraft deployed to try to break a stalemate with the Taliban.

“A key finding of this report is that the government used rockets and heavy machinegun fire on a religious gathering, resulting in high numbers of child casualties,” the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) said.

It said 36 people, including 30 children, were killed and 71 wounded and there were questions “as to the government’s respect of the rules of precaution and proportionality under international humanitarian law”.

In Oct 2015, 42 people were killed in a US airstrike on a hospital in Kunduz city run by medical aid group Medecins Sans Frontieres.

Investigators verified 107 victims, but had received victims’ lists from various sources indicating over 200 casualties, the report said, noting that it did not claim to be providing final, verified civilian casualty figures.

It said there were serious concerns about the incident that required further investigation, but said it was not in a position to determine whether the attack amounted to a violation of international law.

Last month the Afghan government said the attack was intended to hit members of a senior leadership group based in Quetta, who it said were in the area last month. It also targeted members of a Taliban “red unit”, or special forces group, that was planning an attack on Kunduz city, which has been overrun by insurgent forces twice since 2015.

According to the UN report, based on interviews with over 90 witnesses, the helicopters swooped down, firing rockets and .50 calibre machineguns into a crowd attending a “dastar bandi’ ceremony in Laghmani village, Dasht-i-Archi.

The ceremony celebrates boys who have learned the holy Quran by heart.

It said as many as 12 rockets may have been fired at the meeting, held in a field about the size of a football pitch, which was adjacent to a madressah.

The helicopters continued to attack as people fled towards nearby roads and houses, but the UN could not verify allegations that they deliberately targeted civilians and could not determine the civilian status of each person killed or injured.

In the wake of the attack, the government acknowledged that civilians had been killed and President Ashraf Ghani ordered an investigation, but so far no results have been made public.

While overall civilian casualties this year have remained stable from last year, the UN had expressed concern over the high number of casualties from air attacks even before the Dasht-i-Archi incident, with seven deaths and 75 injuries in the first three months to the end of March.

Published in Dawn, May 8th, 2018