Rockets and heavy machine guns fired from Afghan government helicopters killed and wounded at least 107 boys and men attending a religious ceremony near the northern city of Kunduz last month, according to a UN report.
Villagers in the Dasht-e Archi district of Kunduz province said that dozens of people, including many children, had been killed in the 2 April attack, prompting the UN to launch an investigation.
The UN report published on Monday underlined the risks of a new strategy, developed with US advisers, which has seen a significant increase in Afghan airpower, with helicopters equipped with rockets and attack aircraft deployed to try to break a stalemate with the Taliban.
“A key finding of this report is that the government used rockets and heavy machine gun fire on a religious gathering, resulting in high numbers of child casualties,” the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan said.
According to the report, at least 36 people, including 30 children, were killed and 71 wounded, leading to questions “as to the government’s respect of the rules of precaution and proportionality under international humanitarian law”.
Investigators verified 107 victims but had received lists from various sources indicating more than 200 casualties, the report said. There were serious concerns about the incident that required further investigation, but the UN report said it was not in a position to determine whether the attack amounted to a violation of international law.
Last month, the Afghan government said the attack was intended to hit members of a senior leadership group based in the Pakistani city of Quetta, who it said were in the area.
It also targeted members of a Taliban “Red Unit”, or special forces group, that was planning an attack on Kunduz city, which has been overrun by insurgent forces twice since 2015.
According to the UN report, based on interviews with over 90 witnesses, the helicopters swooped down, firing rockets and .50-calibre machine guns into a crowd attending a so-called dastar bandi ceremony in Dasht-e Archi. The ceremony celebrates boys who have learned the Koran by heart.
It said as many as 12 rockets may have been fired at the ceremony held in a field about the size of a football pitch that was adjacent to a madrassa.
The helicopters continued to attack as people fled towards nearby roads and houses but the UN could not verify allegations that they had deliberately targeted civilians and could not determine the civilian status of each person killed or injured.