Sep 23, 2019 – http://www.swissinfo.ch
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 organising 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 defence 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.
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