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U.S.-led strikes kill up to 17 Afghan police

by Pamela Constable The Washington Post | May 18, 2019 at 2:37 a.m. | Updated May 18, 2019 at 2:37 a.m.

KABUL -- A series of airstrikes by the U.S.-led NATO coalition in Afghanistan killed 17 Afghan police officers late Thursday during heavy ground fighting with Taliban forces near the capital of Helmand province, Afghan officials and provincial leaders said Friday.

American military officials said the coalition airstrikes, in what they described as a "tragic accident," killed both Afghan security forces and Taliban fighters, but they did not say how many from each side died.

A spokesman for the U.S. military advisory mission, Lt. Col. Dave Butler, said in a statement that Afghan security officials requested "precision air support" during heavy fighting and that U.S. military personnel had worked with Afghan coordinators. The coordinators "confirmed that the areas were clear of friendly forces," he said. "Unfortunately, they were not, and a tragic accident resulted."

U.S. officials are "examining the miscommunication to ensure it is not repeated," Butler said. "We regret this tragic loss of life of our partners."

Afghan officials also said 14 officers were wounded. They said the incident, which took place during a ground battle along the Kabul-Kandahar highway, was under investigation.

The Taliban said in a statement that U.S. forces were behind the strikes, but a spokesman for the Helmand governor, Omar Zwak, said it was not clear whether Afghan or foreign forces had carried them out.

The incident occurred during a period of sustained and widespread fighting between Taliban fighters and U.S.-backed Afghan forces that has gone on for months and caused heavy casualties among both Afghan troops and civilians.

The Taliban launched its annual spring offensive in March and has continued aggressive attacks since the start of the last week of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting and prayer. The Taliban surge is seen as a means to gain leverage in ongoing peace talks with U.S. officials.

The fatal bombing, although a relatively rare occurrence during the years of conflict in Afghanistan, bore a striking resemblance to a recent deadly situation in southern Uruzgan province in March when at least five Afghan soldiers were killed and 10 injured in airstrikes carried out by U.S. forces.

In that case, Afghan defense officials said the soldiers had been patrolling near a checkpoint when they came under aerial fire. "The attack was caused by lack of proper coordination," a defense official told the Reuters news agency at the time.

In a statement about the March air attack, the U.S. military said its forces had conducted "precision self-defense airstrikes on people firing on Afghan and American forces" who were conducting a ground operation near an Afghan army checkpoint.

A far deadlier incident that took more than 40 civilian lives occurred in October 2015 in northern Kunduz city, where a ferocious battle was underway with Taliban insurgents for control of the area. An American AC-130 gunship attacked a hospital run by the Doctors Without Borders charity, killing 42 people, after receiving confused or unclear information from Afghan ground forces about the correct target.

The incident provoked an angry outcry from the Afghan public and led to a major investigation by U.S. military officials. Since then, U.S. military commanders have made repeated efforts to improve battlefield and air coordination with their Afghan counterparts.

Information for this article was contributed by Sharif Hassan and Sayed Salahuddin of The Washington Post; and by Amir Shah of The Associated Press.

A Section on 05/18/2019

Print Headline: U.S.-led strikes kill up to 17 Afghan police

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