Afghan air strike hits religious school, officials say, after Taliban attacks

KABUL (Reuters) - An Afghan military air strike targeting Taliban fighters killed at least 12 people, including children, and wounded 14 in an attack that hit a religious school in the northeastern province of Takhar, two provincial officials said on Thursday.

Hadi Jamal, an Afghan military spokesman, confirmed the air strike on Wednesday evening but said it was “not clear if the attack had accidentally killed civilians and children” and that an investigation had been launched.

He did not elaborate on what kind of air strike had been carried out.

The two provincial officials asked not to be named because they were not authorised to speak to the press.

Senior officials in the capital city Kabul, including First Vice President Amrullah Saleh, denied that children had been killed in the air strike.

“The news of the killing of children in a mosque in Takhar is baseless. Those who dragged our forces to dust and blood yesterday were destroyed, and we have an undeniable proof,” Saleh wrote on his Facebook page.

In a statement, the hardline Islamist Taliban movement said 12 children were killed and 18 others including a cleric wounded in the air strike.

Taliban fighters have killed at least 37 government troops in attacks over the past 72 hours in an offensive to overrun Baharak district in Takhar, prompting government forces to call in air support, provincial officials said.

Abdul Qayoom Hayrat, head of the provincial health department in Takhar, said that 10 of the dead soldiers were members of the Afghan special forces.

A Taliban spokesman, Zabiullah Mujahid, confirmed the insurgents were engaged in fighting with government forces in Takhar.

Afghanistan has seen rising insurgent violence while talks are underway in Qatar that could help the United States find a way out of its longest war.

The United States signed an agreement with the Taliban in February to promote a negotiated end to the 19-year-old conflict, and talks between the insurgents and the U.S.-backed government began more than a month ago.

But they have yet to yield any major breakthrough.

Reporting by Abdul Qadir Sediqi in Kabul, Sardar Razmal in Kunduz, Writing by Rupam Jain; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Mike Collett-White