The Afghan army on Wednesday rejected preliminary findings by the UN and the country’s main human rights group claiming that military shelling had killed 27 civilians in southern Helmand province two days ago.
“I would like to repeat that this incident has not been caused by the army’s troops. I totally reject this,” Gen. Wali Ahmad Ahmadzai, the army’s commander in Helmand province, said in a video message.
“We are ready to provide any sort of clarification. We strongly reject claims about civilian casualties,” he said.
Ahmadzai said that a specialist team will investigate the incident in a “thorough way.”
On Tuesday the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) blamed Afghan forces for firing mortar shells that struck a busy market in Helmand’s Sangin district.
“UNAMA’s initial impartial findings indicate Afghan National Army mortars inflicted heavy civilian casualties on Monday,” the mission said on Twitter.
“Multiple credible sources assert that the troops fired lethal mortars in response to Taliban fire, missing the intended target,” it said.
The death toll was corroborated by the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, which said that children were among the victims.
“The incident happened as a result of a counterattack by the Afghan military forces. The Afghan government needs to initiate a transparent investigation into the attack,” Naeem Nazari, the commission’s deputy head, said on Tuesday.
He added that 35 other people were injured in the incident after security forces “launched a counterattack against the Taliban.”
Civilian casualties caused by both Afghan and US-led foreign troops hunting for insurgents have been one of the main reasons for the population’s dwindling support for both the government and the army.
While provincial officials accused the Taliban over the incident and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani described it as a “terrorist act,” the Taliban and several locals blamed the army for the deaths.
Videos shared on social media on Monday showed bodies, including those of young children, strewn in the open field with carcasses of sheep scattered nearby.
One video shows a bearded man pointing at two bodies — one of his brother and the other of his nephew — before claiming that government forces carried out the attack.
Although the UN in the past has repeatedly linked several civilian casualties to militant attacks, in recent years it has reported a spike in civilian deaths due to air raids and operations by government and foreign troops.
Meanwhile, Ghulam Wali Afghan, a lawmaker from Helmand province, said he had “evidence and signatures that show the army’s artillery rounds caused the carnage.”
He said: “People in Helmand are very upset and some staged anti-government protests yesterday. They demanded the arrest and punishment of those who were behind the shelling.”
Nine of the victims were from the same family, he said.
While there has been a significant drop in fighting after the Taliban agreed to a cease-fire on May 24, government officials say the group has stepped up attacks against security forces and civilians in recent weeks.
The Taliban has denied responsibility for most incidents, but did acknowledge it had been “targeting security forces across most provinces.”
The explosions in Helmand early on Monday came as the insurgents and the government prepare for crucial peace talks to end the decades-old war in Afghanistan.
Talks are expected to pave the way for a total withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan by next year.
During a phone call with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Monday, the Taliban’s chief negotiator, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, reiterated that the group was committed to the deal with Washington.
Pompeo acknowledged that the Taliban had refrained from attacking urban centers and military bases, but called on the militants to do more to reduce overall violence, a Taliban spokesperson said.
This article has been adapted from its original source.
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