–UN launches probe amid ‘disturbing’ reports of serious harm to civilians
–Afghan government claims 59, while Taliban say ‘150, mostly children, were wounded, killed’ in attack
KABUL: As many as 100 civilians, including a large number of children, were reportedly killed in an airstrike by the Afghan Air Force in the northern province of Kunduz at a religious gathering, eyewitnesses and local officials claimed on Tuesday.
Following the reports of the attack, the United Nations issued a statement, saying it was investigating “disturbing reports of serious harm to civilians” in the airstrike on a religious school which according to security sources left a number of children dead or wounded.
“Human Rights team on ground establishing facts. All parties reminded of obligations to protect civilians from impact of armed conflict,” the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan said in a brief statement.
Hundreds of people were attending a graduation ceremony at the madrassa in a Taliban-controlled district in northeastern Afghanistan on Monday when Afghan Air Force helicopters struck, witnesses told agencies.
At least 59 people, including Taliban commanders meeting at the compound in the Dashte Archi district in Kunduz province, were killed in the attack, Afghan security sources told AFP on condition of anonymity. Most of the civilian victims were children, they said.
“I myself counted 35 bodies,” Abdul Khalil told AFP at the hospital in the provincial capital Kunduz where health officials said 57 injured had been taken.
“I arrived at the scene right after the airstrikes — it was like a butcher’s shop. Everywhere was covered with blood, the ground was littered with body parts, heads, limbs and other parts.”
A man called Yousuf, who was at the ceremony when the airstrikes happened, told the agencies he saw “blood and body parts everywhere”.
The wounded were driven more than 50 kilometres (30 miles) to the hospital for treatment. So far the defence ministry has denied civilians were among the casualties.
“Twenty Taliban, including the commander of their Red Unit in the district, and also a key member of the Quetta Shura were killed,” Defence Ministry Spokesman Mohammad Radmanish told AFP on Monday.
The Taliban confirmed Monday the attack on the madrassa but denied militants had been meeting at the religious school.
‘WAILING, BLOOD EVERYWHERE’:
According to witnesses, “a lot of civilians” died in the attack whose families were devastated
Mohammed Abdul Haq, who witnessed the attack, told a foreign media outlet that “there were children as young as 11 or 12 years old in the ceremony who were to be presented with awards and gifts for the completion of their religious courses.”
“Mothers are wailing and crying outside the hospitals for the death of their children and everyone is crying with them,” he added.
Another witness claimed that over 100 people were killed in the incident, saying that there were Taliban present in the ceremony but it was hosted in the honour of young ‘Qaris’.
“I was working in my farm when I heard helicopters and jets bombing the madrassa (religious school) where the Taliban were gathered alongside new Qaris (the ones who memorise the 30 chapters of the Quran) to recognise them with awards,” the witness told Al Jazeera.
“The Taliban are active in the area, but the ceremony was attended mostly by children and young boys.”
Haji said when he went closer to the area, there were many children who were killed and wounded.
“It was a disaster. Blood everywhere,” he said, adding that the “many” people were killed.
Sayed Jaan, a resident of the district of Dasht-i Archi, said he attended two mass funerals of almost 40 people, adding that other burials had taken place.
He said the helicopter attack happened during a religious ceremony, called Dastaar Bandi, to mark young men completing the memorization of the Koran, the Muslim holy book.
“There were two mass graves to bury the victims of the bombing and I took part in both burials. In one grave, 16, and in another, 21. Many were young children,” Sayed Jaan said, adding that “there were other burials and people were digging graves.”
The madrassa was run by scholars sympathetic to the Taliban but the facility was open to the public, a senior Taliban commander speaking from an unknown location in Pakistan told AFP on Tuesday.
He said as many as 2,000 people were at the school on Monday, including 750 students, for a graduation ceremony but denied senior Taliban leaders were present.
He estimated that 400 people had been killed and an unknown number wounded. The Taliban are known to exaggerate battlefield claims.
Several boys with their arms and legs bandaged were seen lying in beds and along the corridors of the hospital.