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Dozens of Afghans Killed in a Possible U.S. Drone Strike and a Taliban Bombing

Afghan civilians continued to die by the dozens on Thursday in violent attacks, this time in what Afghan officials said was an American drone strike in eastern Afghanistan, and in a separate Taliban bombing that leveled a hospital in southern Afghanistan.

At least 30 people were killed and 28 wounded in the drone attack in Nangarhar Province, according to local government officials, who blamed United States aircraft. They said some of the victims had gathered to harvest pine nuts at the time of the attack. Separately, at least 22 people were killed and 90 wounded in a suicide truck bombing claimed by the Taliban at a hospital in Zabul Province, officials said.

Since peace talks between the United States and the Taliban collapsed almost two weeks ago, Afghan civilians have suffered a relentless wave of violence. The Taliban have vowed to disrupt presidential elections scheduled for Sept. 28 and to attack government facilities.

At the same time, President Trump has said American forces supporting Afghan troops have ramped up attacks against the militants. He wrote in a tweet on Sept. 9: "We have been hitting our ENEMY harder than at any time in the last ten years!"

Col. Sonny Leggett, spokesman for the American-led coalition in Afghanistan, said on Thursday that American forces had "conducted a precision strike against Da'esh terrorists in Nangarhar early this morning," using a term for the Islamic State, or ISIS.

"We are fighting in a complex environment against those who intentionally kill and hide behind civilians, as well as use dishonest claims of noncombatant casualties as propaganda weapons," Colonel Leggett said in a statement.

"We are aware of allegations of the death of noncombatants and are working with local officials to determine the facts to insure this is not a ploy to deflect attention from the civilians murdered by the Taliban at a hospital in Zabul earlier today," the statement said.

In the first six months of this year, American and Afghan Air Force strikes killed 363 civilians and injured 156, a 39 percent increase in casualties from the same period in 2018, the United Nations reported on July 30. The report said that civilian deaths attributed to American and Afghan government forces exceeded those attributed to the Taliban and other antigovernment extremists.

So far this year, the number of American airdropped missiles and bombs in Afghanistan is set to meet or possibly outpace the 7,362 munitions launched in all of 2018.

The United Nations report said the Taliban and other militants were responsible for 531 civilian deaths and 1,437 injuries in the first six months of this year. It said many militant attacks deliberately targeted civilians.

Ajmal Omar, a member of the Nangarhar provincial council, said a number of civilians planning to harvest pine nuts were inside a tent when the drone attacked about 1:30 a.m. Thursday in the village of Waziro Tangi in the Khogyani district.

Malik Maki, a community leader in the district, said the tent had been set up and occupied by Islamic State fighters, but it was unclear whether ISIS members were inside at the time of the drone strike.

"Da'esh is present in this area," Mr. Maki said. Nangarhar is a stronghold for the Islamic State in Afghanistan.

Malik Habib, a community leader in the village that was struck, said all 30 dead were civilians. But he did not elaborate on how he made that determination, or whether some of the dead could have been ISIS fighters wearing civilian clothing.

Mr. Habib said in a later interview that some of the bodies were so badly burned that he could not determine their identities.

In Qalat, the provincial capital of Zabul Province, Abdul Salam said he had taken his sick cousin to the hospital just a short time before an early morning explosion collapsed the floors and roof of the hospital. He said he was trapped under rubble for an hour, emerging with both legs broken.

"It felt like a big bomb hit the hospital right on top," Mr. Salam said. "Many patients and their relatives died because of the force of the explosion."

Gul Islam Seyal, a spokesman for Zabul's governor, said most of the civilians killed in the 6 a.m. attack were poor, rural Afghans who were either patients or visiting relatives.

"It is a big tragedy to lose such poor human beings," Mr. Seyal said. "The Taliban are trying to kill poor civilians and nobody else."

Local officials said some of the wounded had died at the scene because several ambulances were destroyed in the blast.

A Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, said the suicide bombing had targeted a nearby headquarters of the National Directorate of Security, the government intelligence service.

"The enemy is in the middle of a civilian area and uses civilians as shields," Mr. Mujahid said in a Twitter post. "The hospital was not the target of our attack."

But Mr. Seyal, the governor's spokesman, said the bomb exploded next to the hospital and damaged only a rear wall of the intelligence service facility.

Assadullah Kakar, a member of the Zabul provincial council, said the Taliban claim about targeting the directorate was a lie. He said the suicide bomber drove his truck through the front gate of the hospital compound.

"The force of the explosion crushed the hospital into the earth," while also damaging nearby homes, Mr. Kakar said. Noting that the hospital was the biggest in the province, he added, "This is the service the Taliban has done for the nation."

Those wounded in the attack were taken to the nearest hospital, in Kandahar, he said.

The violence on Thursday came two days after the Taliban claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing at a campaign rally in eastern Afghanistan and a separate bombing in Kabul, killing at least 48 people. Most of the victims were civilians, a consistent pattern in recent Taliban attacks.

Mr. Mujahid, the Taliban spokesman, said on Tuesday that civilians killed in the campaign rally attack were to blame for putting themselves in harm's way because the militants had warned Afghans to avoid election events, calling them "military targets."

On Thursday, the former president Hamid Karzai condemned the Taliban for the hospital attack.

"By conducting attacks on Afghans and killing them, you will not be able to defeat America in Afghanistan," Mr. Karzai said in a speech in Kabul. "We expect our Taliban brothers as Muslims and Afghans to start intra-Afghan talks so that we can be stronger to negotiate with America."

Mr. Karzai also called on the United States to resume peace negotiations, which Mr. Trump declared "dead" on Sept. 9.

The top American envoy during more than 10 months of peace talks with the Taliban said on Sept. 2 that an agreement had been reached "in principle" for the United States to begin withdrawing troops in exchange for a Taliban pledge to never again let Afghanistan be used by terrorists to stage attacks.

The deal would also have led to negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government to determine the country's political future, along with a possible cease-fire.

[Source: By David Zucchino, The New York Times, Kabul, 19Sep19]

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