The claims come days after the United Nations mission in Afghanistan expressed concern about the dramatic increase in civilian casualties caused by aerial operations.
A report released by the mission last week said that in 2016, airstrikes by international and Afghan air forces had caused 590 civilian casualties (250 deaths and 340 injuries), the highest toll since 2009 and nearly double that recorded in 2015.
Afghan government officials in Helmand on Saturday continued to reject claims that civilians had been killed in Sangin. But their reasoning also underscored the government’s shrinking control there, as the Taliban have essentially seized all the territory right up to the gates of the government compound in Sangin.
“The area which is targeted is free from civilians — there’s no resident within three kilometers of the district center, and the airstrikes were conducted 700 meters from the district compound, where no civilians are able to live in that close range of the battleground,” Hayatullah Hayat, the provincial governor of Helmand, said in a news conference in Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital. He said that about 60 Taliban fighters were killed in the airstrikes.
In a sign of how bad the fighting in Sangin is, the United States alone has carried out approximately 30 “air-to-ground” attacks in the district over the past week — a term that includes airstrikes as well as ordnance fired from helicopters, General Cleveland said.
The Afghan Air Force has also been engaged in recent battles, but officials would not comment on the exact number of strikes its aircraft had carried out in Sangin. In all of Helmand, the Afghan Air Force conducted 114 airstrikes in the past three months, said Gen. Dawlat Waziri, a spokesman for the Afghan Defense Ministry.
Hajji Mohammad Dawod, an elder from the Sangin district who fled to Lashkar Gah because of the fighting, said the airstrikes destroyed houses near a mosque where Taliban were staying and killed 22 civilians. He said the toll was confirmed by people who attended the burials.
“There is no doubt that the civilians have been killed, and the government should not hide it or deny,” Mr. Dawood said, “This is not fair.”
He said the first attack struck the house of Malim Faida Mohammed, killing him and 12 family members: his two wives, two of his daughters-in-law, and eight of his children. An airstrike on a second house, which belonged to the family of a man named Mullah Pacha, killed nine people. Mullah Pacha died years ago in an explosion, relatives said.
Hajji Majnoon, a brother of Mullah Pacha who lives in the Greshk district, said the bombing happened at 2:30 a.m. on Friday. He listed the dead as Mullah Pacha’s wife, Bibi Bakhtawar, six sons, a daughter and a granddaughter, who was visiting from Lashkar Gah.
“No one remains alive from that house, except for the two sons who were in Lashkar Gah,” Mr. Majnoon said.
Helmand is Afghanistan’s largest province in terms of territory and leads in poppy cultivation. As the Taliban has wrested much of it from the government’s control, the American-led NATO mission, which has been drawn down to a small advisory and counterterrorism mission, has been forced to step up its involvement. Currently, there are about 13,300 international troops in Afghanistan, 8,400 of whom are American.
The United States has announced that 300 Marines would be returning to Helmand in the spring to advise and assist the Afghan forces trying to hold off the Taliban, who have tightened the noose around Lashkar Gah.
At the peak of the fighting in Helmand in 2011, there were roughly 20,000 Marines in the province. Their return to Helmand, after a complete withdrawal in 2014, is a telling indication of the direction of the war.
Gen. John W. Nicholson, the commander of American and NATO forces in Afghanistan, last week described the war as a stalemate and expressed concern about the level of casualties the Afghan forces had been suffering.
Speaking before the Senate Armed Services Committee, he said he would need a “few thousand” more troops to help the Afghan forces break the deadlock.
Also on Saturday, a suicide bombing in Lashkar Gah struck a group of soldiers who were lining up outside a bank to receive their pay, killing at least eight people and wounding 25 others, said Abdul Karim Attal, the leader of the Helmand provincial council.
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