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Accounts Differ Over Civilian Deaths In Afghan Drone Strike

FILE: Afghan soldiers inspect their checkpost damaged in a militant attack in Kunar.
FILE: Afghan soldiers inspect their checkpost damaged in a militant attack in Kunar.

The Afghan government and residents of an eastern province are making opposing claims about who was killed in a recent air strike last week.

Afghan police claim the October 13 strike by a suspected unmanned drone killed scores of militants fighting for the so-called Islamic State (IS).

But a local resident and a lawmaker representing Kunar in the national parliament say most victims were civilians.

Kunar’s police chief, Juma Gul Hemat, is adamant the drone strike targeted a militant hideout in the remote mountainous Dewa Gul Valley of Chawkay district.

“Not a single civilian was killed. It was a very important hideout for Daesh (local name of IS), and they were planning to expand it into neighboring Mazar Dara,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan. “At the time of the air strike, the militants were holding a meeting. At least 20 were killed, and some of their weapons were destroyed.”

But a local resident painted a different picture. Mawlawi Ahmad, a community leader in Chawkay, says at least 15 civilians were killed in two drone attacks.

“At least 15 people were killed, including a child who was completely burned in the attack,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan. “One of the air strikes targeted a group of people going to a wedding while the other struck a house.”

Mawlawi Shahzada Shahid, a resident of Chawkay, represents Kunar in Wolesi Jirga or the lower house of the Afghan Parliament. He says at least 14 civilians were killed in the attack.

“It was a big tragedy, and so far we know that 14 people were killed,” he said. “People have not been able to completely identify the men, women, and children.”

Hemat, the regional police chief, however, insists none of the victims was civilian.

“Claims that civilians were killed are not true. This was an important militant base where fighters from different provinces were being trained,” he said. “They were planning to cut a major road linking Kunar to the neighboring province of Nangarhar. Thank god their designs were foiled.”

The militants have so far been silent about the attack. A lack of security often prevents journalists from traveling to the sites of air strikes in remote corners of Afghanistan.

While the warring sides in Afghanistan often exaggerate the losses of their opponents, they can be reluctant to acknowledge civilian casualties.

In a report last week, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) documented 8,019 civilian casualties during the first nine months of this year.

The report said more than 5,000 -- or 64 percent -- of the casualties were caused by "anti-government elements." While the overall number of casualties caused by government forces has decreased, the number of Afghan civilians killed in air strikes is surging.

From January through September, UNAMA documented 466 civilian casualties in air strikes. These include 205 deaths and 261 injuries, most of whom were women and children.

Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Rohullah Anwari reported this story from Kunar, Afghanistan.

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