Airstrikes in Taliban Area Kill 29 Afghans Despite Peace Talks

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KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — Local Afghan officials are blaming the American military for two airstrikes that killed 29 people this week, most of them women and children, in heavy fighting in southern Helmand Province, even as American diplomats negotiated possible peace terms with the Taliban.

The reaction followed a familiar pattern in the long history of disputed airstrikes in Afghanistan, with the American military denying that the second airstrike even occurred, while confirming that the first was under investigation. The United Nations called the civilian casualty reports “credible.”

In Doha, Qatar, where the American peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad was in the fifth day of peace negotiations on Friday, Taliban negotiators accused the American military of stepping up airstrikes to pressure them to make a deal.

“Killing innocent people, with their women and children, is a great concern to us,” said a senior member of the Taliban reached by telephone in Pakistan. “We raised the issue with Khalilzad.”

The official said deadly tactics would not work. “The more they kill, the more our blood will turn hot,” he said. The official, who was briefed on the talks but not present, spoke on condition of anonymity as part of a longstanding policy to not be named by the news media.

In the first episode, Afghan and American forces carried out an operation early Thursday in the Sangin district of Helmand Province, which has long been held by the Taliban. Those units on the ground received gunfire from a house that was then bombed by American aircraft, local officials said.

“The house belonged to Noor Mohammad, who was a civilian,” said Mohammad Dawood, head of the Sangin district council, who lives in exile but remains in touch with residents there. The bombing killed four women and 10 children in the house, as well as two men, he said.

The provincial authorities in Helmand confirmed that the episode had taken place, but said they could not provide casualty details.

Mohammad Hashim Alokozai, a member of Parliament from Helmand, also said 16 civilians had been killed.

The next day, Friday, male relatives of the victims gathered for a mass funeral, and as they were burying the dead, they were caught by another American airstrike, Mr. Alokozai said, killing 13 men.

“We don’t know what is going on,” he said. “We don’t know what happened to NATO that they are targeting innocent civilians.”

Sgt. First Class Debra Richardson, an American military spokeswoman, said no airstrike was carried out by the coalition in Sangin on Friday. “The Taliban claim today that a U.S. airstrike killed 10 civilians while digging graves is false and Taliban propaganda,” Sergeant Richardson said.

As for the bombing Thursday that appeared to have killed 16 civilians, she said an investigation was underway.

“A large Afghan-led, multiday operation in Sangin, Helmand, has been supported by U.S. advisers and coalition airstrikes,” Sergeant Richardson said. “The partnered operation cleared 23 I.E.D.s and have been engaged in heavy fighting. Due to the ongoing operation and the number of units involved we are still looking into the claim of noncombatant casualties.”

The United Nations Mission in Afghanistan also put out a statement on Thursday about the civilian deaths in Sangin. “UNAMA is following up on credible reports of civilian casualties, including children, from an aerial operation in Sangin district,” the agency said in a Twitter post.

Civilian casualties have risen in the past year with the great increase in fighting between the Taliban and Afghan government units, often supported by American Special Operations troops and air power.

Nearly 2,800 civilians were killed and 5,252 civilians were wounded in the first nine months of 2018, according to the United Nations, which expressed concern about increasing deaths from airstrikes.

Members of the Afghan security forces are dying in record numbers. The Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, speaking Thursday at a panel at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, said 45,000 members of the security forces had died since he took office in September 2014 — a much higher total than anyone in his government had previously acknowledged.

Last November, Mr. Ghani said 28,000 members of security forces had died since he became president. The Afghan military claims it is killing as many or more insurgents.

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