The United Nations said Sunday that last week’s U.S. airstrikes in southern Afghanistan could have killed at least 18 civilians.
The strikes targeted insurgent positions on Thursday and Friday in Sangin, an embattled district in the province of Helmand, according to a statement by the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, or UNAMA.
“UNAMA’s initial enquiries suggest that the airstrikes killed at least 18 civilians, nearly all women and children,” it said and noted the U.S. military has initiated an investigation into the incident.
On Friday, a U.S. military spokesman confirmed the U.S. carried out air raids against Taliban positions in the area, and it was looking into allegations of civilian casualties in the strikes.
“We are aware of the allegations of civilian casualties, and take every allegation very seriously,” a statement quoted the spokesman as saying.
Helmand governor and military commanders have denied allegations of civilian casualties in Sangin, insisting the airstrikes targeted insurgent positions and killed nearly 60 Taliban fighters.
The Islamist insurgency launched a major offensive against Sangin two weeks ago and captured areas in and around the district center.
Afghan security forces, backed by U.S. air support, have since been trying to evict the insurgents and both sides have suffered heavy casualties.
Helmand, the country’s largest province and poppy-growing region, is mostly controlled by the Taliban. The Afghan government fully controls only its capital city of Lashkar Gah and few district centers.
On Saturday, a Taliban suicide bomber detonated his explosives-packed car just outside a bank in they city, killing at least seven people and wounding 20 others, including women and children.
The attack was aimed at Afghan security forces and several soldiers were among the dead. UNAMA has expressed its grave concern at the escalation of violence in Helmand.
“The people of Helmand have suffered greatly due to the armed conflict in Afghanistan, with 891 civilians killed or injured during 2016. This figure was the highest in the country in 2016 outside of Kabul,” said the mission’s statement.
It reiterated the need for all parties to the conflict to strictly adhere to their obligations under international humanitarian law to take all feasible measures to protect civilians from harm.
UNAMA documented a record more than 11,400 civilian casualties in Afghanistan last year, including nearly 3,500 deaths. The figures showed a three percent rise in overall casualties compared to the year before while child casualties rose by 24 percent