New York, Jalalabad-The United Nations has denounced the death of 15 civilians, including a child, in a U.S. air strike against ISIS militants in eastern Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province, calling for an independent investigation into the killings.
The drone attack occurred Wednesday in Achin district, a hotbed of ISIS insurgents near the border with Pakistan, as villagers gathered to welcome a tribal elder who had returned from the hajj pilgrimage.
“UNAMA condemns the killing of at least 15 civilian men and the injuring of at least 13 others, including at least one boy, in the strike,” the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan said.
“Civilian victims of the strike included students and a teacher, as well as members of families considered to be pro-government.”
Afghan authorities had previously put the civilian death toll at between three and 13.
The American military acknowledged it had conducted the “counter-terrorism airstrike” on Wednesday, adding it was still probing the incident.
“United States Forces – Afghanistan takes all allegations of civilian casualties very seriously,” the U.S. military said in a statement.
“Daesh is killing innocent Afghan men, women, and children. They continue to put innocent lives at risk by deliberately surrounding themselves with civilians and dressing in female attire,” it said, using the Arabic acronym for ISIS.
ISIS first emerged in Afghanistan in late 2014 and has since violently challenged the much larger Afghan Taliban movement in parts of the country’s east.
But the terrorist organizations have steadily lost territory in recent months because of stepped-up U.S. airstrikes and a ground campaign by Afghan forces in Nangarhar.
Civilian and military casualties caused by NATO forces have been one of the most contentious issues in the 15-year campaign against the insurgents, prompting harsh public and government criticism.
A U.S. air strike killed eight Afghan policemen earlier this month in the southern province of Uruzgan in the first apparent “friendly fire” incident since American forces were given greater powers to strike at insurgents in June.
The new authority gave the U.S.-led NATO troops greater latitude to order air strikes in support of Afghan troops.
Meanwhile, a U.S. official has said that Washington may consider lifting sanctions on one of Afghanistan’s most notorious warlords after a peace accord was signed in the Afghan capital on Thursday.
Afghan president Ashraf Ghani formalized the controversial arrangement with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar in a deal the government hopes will lead to more peace agreements.
Surrounded by hundreds of Afghan officials, many former warlords and rivals themselves, Ghani signed a pact that opens the door to the militant faction of Hezb-i-Islami, led by Hekmatyar, playing an active role in politics.
A controversial figure from the insurgency against the Soviets in the 1980s and the civil wars of the 1990s, Hekmatyar has been designated a “global terrorist” by the United States, which has been leading an international military mission in Afghanistan for the past 15 years.
As part of the deal, the Afghan government agreed to lobby international organizations to lift sanctions on Hekmatyar and Hezb-i-Islami.
“We will seriously consider any sanctions delisting request put forward by the government of Afghanistan,” the U.S. official, who did not want to be identified, told Reuters.
“If the Security Council deems the sanctions imposed on certain individuals to be outdated and no longer in the interest of Afghan peace and stability, then we will need to reconsider these measures.”
The U.S. Embassy, the United Nations, and other international organizations have publicly praised the accord as a step toward resolving the conflict in Afghanistan.
Despite the rhetoric of unity, Hekmatyar was not present and addressed a gathering in Kabul in a recorded video message, appearing by himself to sign the document in a small room.
“With this agreement, I hope to put an end to the current crisis in the country,” Hekmatyar said in his message.
“I call on all sides to support this peace deal and I call on the opposition parties of the government to join the peace process and pursue their goals through peaceful means.”
He reiterated his calls for an end to “foreign interference” and for all foreign troops to leave Afghanistan.
Hekmatyar, who served as prime minister in the 1990s, before the rise to power of the Taliban, has long been known as close to neighboring Pakistan, and he received U.S. aid during the fight against the Soviets.