By Mohammed Stanekzai and Abdul Qadir Sediqi
HELMAND, Afghanistan/KABUL (Reuters) – At least 40 civilians attending a wedding party were killed by explosions and gunfire during a raid by U.S.-backed Afghan government forces on a nearby Islamist militant hideout, officials in Helmand province said on Monday.
The raid, days after a U.S. drone strike aimed at militants hiding among farmers killed 32 pine nut harvesters, showed how civilians have borne the brunt of a war that has re-intensified since U.S.-Taliban peace talks collapsed two weeks ago.
Afghan officials said a house being used by the Taliban to train suicide bombers was located adjacent to the bride’s home that came under fire during Sunday night’s commando assault in the Musa Qala area of Helmand in Afghanistan’s south.
On Monday, 30-year-old Musa Qala resident Mohammad Salim carried bodies of cousins and relatives to a burial ground from a house decorated for his sister-in-law’s wedding.
Salim and two senior provincial government officials said 40 people, including 12 children, were killed at the wedding venue when Afghan forces swooped on the house used by Taliban and al Qaeda militants to train male and female suicide bombers.
“We were going to the bride’s house for the henna ceremony, some of us were outside the home and some inside, (when) suddenly the battle began…We told the security forces that we were not members of the Taliban,” Salim told Reuters.
“But both sides ended up killing civilians,” he said. Another 13 wedding party participants were injured.
A senior Afghan Defence Ministry official said the raid was against “a foreign terrorist group actively engaged in organizing terrorist attacks”. He said government forces had also destroyed a large warehouse of militants’ equipment.
A second ministry official said a foreign militant detonated a suicide vest that killed him and others around him, including a woman, in response to the raid. “We are aware that civilians were injured in the attack,” he said.
Colonel Sonny Leggett, a spokesman for U.S. forces in Afghanistan, said they joined with Afghan security forces in the Helmand operation, conducting “precision strikes against barricaded terrorists firing on Afghan and U.S. forces.”
Leggett said most of those killed in the operation were struck by the gunfire of militants or from detonations of their explosives caches or suicide vests.
The Helmand governor’s office said four senior Taliban commanders and the Taliban shadow governor of Musa Qala were among those killed. Twenty-two Taliban fighters in all were killed and 14 captured, the defense ministry said. Five Pakistanis and a Bangladeshi national were among those captured.
WAR PICKS UP AGAIN
Bombing, air strikes and ground clashes between U.S.-backed government forces and militants have flared anew since the U.S.-Taliban negotiations fell apart, and ahead of a presidential election next week.
In the drone strike on Sept. 18 in the eastern province of Nangarhar, six local government officials said 32 pine nut harvesters were killed, 40 of whom were injured.
Malik Khyali, 62, a resident of Khogyani district in Nangarhar, said he lost a son in the drone strike and would not forgive those who carried it out as he knew of no militants hiding among laborers in the thickly wooded area.
Khyali said his son Madad Khan was employed as a cook who was serving meals to pine nut harvesters when a drone crashed into their tents. “I saw body parts being collected in several sacks…If you had seen them covered with blood and dirt, you would not be able to eat for days,” he told Reuters.
The Taliban have been staging near-daily attacks since the collapse of peace talks in the run-up to the presidential election on Sept. 28 in order to discourage people from voting.
Last week a suicide bombing outside a hospital in Qalat in southern Afghanistan killed 39 people and injured 140. The Taliban said the target was a nearby building housing the regional government’s intelligence department.
Farah Sami, a mother of four whose three-year-old son was critically wounded in that attack, said combatants were engaged in mindless violence to justify their existence.
“All sides have been killing civilians. There is no hero or villain in this long war,” she said.
The United States in 2001 sent forces to Afghanistan to oust Taliban leaders after they refused to hand over members of the al Qaeda militant group behind the Sept. 11 attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Since then, U.S. forces have backed Afghan troops in war against the al Qaeda, Taliban and Islamic State groups that recruit Afghans and foreigners who mount attacks against the Western-backed Afghan government and foreign forces.
A U.N. report released on June 30 said 717 civilian deaths were attributed to American and Afghan forces during the first six months of the year, compared with 531 blamed on militants.
Last week President Ashraf Ghani promised measures to reduce civilian casualties. On Monday he tweeted a call for “extra caution” in military operations, and ordered investigations.
(This story corrects to attribute deaths to six government officials in paragraph 14).
(Additional reporting by Ahmad Sultan in Jalalabad, Rupam Jain and Orooj Hakimi in Kabul; Writing by Rupam Jain; Editing by Mark Heinrich)