Human Rights Watch (HRW) has condemned alleged efforts by Afghan authorities to "silence" anyone reporting on a "potentially unlawful air strike" that the watchdog claims killed at least a dozen children at a mosque complex in northern Afghanistan.
The U.S.-based group said on October 22 that Afghan Vice President Amrullah Saleh "has ordered the arrest of the individual who reported civilian casualties" from an Afghan Air Force attack this week that reportedly struck the mosque or an adjacent madrasah, or religious school, in Takhar Province.
Saleh and the government have insisted that all of those killed were Taliban fighters, not civilians, and Kabul has ordered an investigation into the incident.
A surge in violence in Afghanistan has accompanied eagerly anticipated intra-Afghan peace talks between government and Taliban representatives in Qatar that kicked off last month but have mostly stalled.
“Vice President Amrullah Saleh is trying to silence those who reported a potentially unlawful air strike that killed civilians, including many children,” HRW quoted its associate Asia director, Patricia Gossman, as saying. “The government should immediately release anyone detained under Saleh’s order and carry out a thorough and impartial investigation of the air strike.” The strike in question occurred on October 21 in the Baharak district, some 15 kilometers from the regional capital, Taloqan, where Taliban fighters had killed dozens of Afghan security forces in the early morning.
Provincial councilor Mohammad Azam Afzali said a warplane bombed the mosque after receiving information that Taliban militants who were involved in the earlier attack on security forces were hiding there.
The Defense Ministry confirmed the strike was carried out by the Afghan Air Force but denied civilians had died alongside "12 Taliban, including several of their commanders."
An investigation team was appointed to "assess allegations about civilian casualties resulting from this attack,” the ministry said.
Provincial police spokesman Khalil Aseer said 14 people were also wounded in the strike.
"The laws of war permit attacks only against military objectives, which include enemy fighters, weapons, and equipment," HRW said, adding that "it is not clear if Taliban forces were in the vicinity of the mosque."
The imam of the mosque said that only he and children were in the mosque at the time of the strike.
Saleh took to Facebook to deny news that children had died in the mosque as "baseless” and say those spreading "rumors" about the air strike could face legal action.
Earlier on October 22, Takhar’s provincial deputy police chief and at least 43 Afghan security forces were killed in clashes with the Taliban in Baharak, according to officials.
The Taliban has so far refused to accept a cease-fire in the Qatar talks.
A Taliban assault by the militants in the southern province of Helmand this month forced nearly 40,000 civilians to flee their homes, disrupted telecommunications services, and closed the highway between Kandahar and Helmand, according to the UN refugee agency, UNHCR.
According to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), civilian populations continue to bear the brunt of Afghanistan's war with at least 1,282 deaths in the first six months of the year.
UNAMA has said women and children comprised 65 percent of civilian casualties from air strikes by the Afghan Air Force in the first half of 2020.