The U.S. military in Afghanistan said on Thursday that its investigation into a November firefight with the Taliban in northern Kunduz province has shown that 33 civilians died in the raid during which U.S. troops fired on Afghan homes.
The probe followed claims that civilian deaths resulted from airstrikes called in to support Afghan and U.S. forces who came under fire in the province's village of Buz-e Kandahari, which targeted two senior Taliban commanders.
The two Taliban figures, responsible for violence in Kunduz the previous month, were killed in the operation.
According to a U.S. military statement, the investigation "determined, regretfully, that 33 civilians were killed and 27 wounded" as troops responded to fire from "Taliban who were using civilian houses as firing positions."
After the raid, Kunduz residents carried over a dozen corpses of the dead, including children and family members of the Taliban fighters, toward a local governor's office in a show of rage.
"Regardless of the circumstances, I deeply regret the loss of innocent lives," the statement quoted Gen. John Nicholson, commander of U.S. Forces in Afghanistan. "On this occasion the Taliban chose to hide amongst civilians and then attacked Afghan and U.S. forces."
"I wish to assure President (Ashraf) Ghani and the people of Afghanistan that we will take all possible measures to protect Afghan civilians," Nicholson added. "We will continue to assist the Afghan security forces in their efforts to defend their country."
But a Kunduz official told The Associated Press that the Afghan civilian death toll in the U.S. military probe was less than what local authorities had.
"More than 50 people, including women and children, were killed in the Afghan and U.S. forces' attack in Buz-e Kandahari," said Toryalia Kakar, a deputy provincial council member.
Kakar urged the United States to compensate the victims' families who he said not only lost their loved ones but also saw their homes and property destroyed in the airstrikes.
The Taliban briefly overran the city of Kunduz, the provincial capital with the same name, in October 2015, in a show of strength by the insurgents that also highlighted the troubles facing local Afghan forces, 15 years after the U.S.-led invasion of the country. The Taliban captured and held parts of Kunduz a year earlier as well, before the city was fully liberated weeks later with the help of U.S. airstrikes.
In the 2015 operation, a U.S. Air Force special operations AC-130 gunship attacked a Kunduz hospital run by the medical charity Doctors Without Borders, killing 42 people. Sixteen U.S. military personnel, including a two-star general, later were disciplined for what American officials described as mistakes that led the strike. Doctors Without Borders has called the attack a war crime and demanded an independent investigation.
After the firefight last November, Ghani criticized the Taliban for using women and children as "a shield" during the raid in Buz-e Kandahari. He also announced a local investigation had been started.
The U.S. military statement further added that its investigation "concluded that U.S. forces acted in self-defense" in the joint Afghan-American raid in the village.
"As an indication of the ferocity of the fire faced by friendly forces from the Taliban-occupied houses, two U.S. soldiers and three Afghan Army Commandos were killed," it said. "In addition, four U.S. soldiers and 11 commandos were wounded."
The raid also killed 26 Taliban fighters and wounded around 26 other insurgents, the U.S. military report said.
However, Kakar, the Kunduz official, disputed that death toll, saying not more than 10 Taliban fighters died.
The investigation concluded that U.S. air assets used the minimum amount of force required and that the civilians who were wounded or killed were likely inside the buildings from which the Taliban were firing. In addition, the U.S. military said a Taliban ammunition cache was struck and exploded, which also destroyed multiple civilian buildings and may also have killed civilians.
"It has been determined that no further action will be taken because U.S. forces acted in self-defense and followed all applicable law and policy," the statement concluded.
NATO's combat operations ended in Afghanistan at the end of 2014, a move that put Afghan forces in charge of the country's security. Since then, Afghan forces have suffered heavy casualties battling the Taliban, who have tried to expand their footprint across much of the country. NATO and U.S. casualties have been few.