U.S. envoy condemns Afghan airstrikes against Taliban as civilians among 45 killed

HERAT, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Afghan government forces killed 45 people, including civilians, in airstrikes against Taliban fighters in a western province bordering Iran on Wednesday, drawing condemnation from the U.S. envoy trying to start peace talks involving all sides.

“In Herat, photos and eyewitness accounts suggest many civilians including children are among the victims of an Afghan airstrike. We condemn the attack and support an investigation,” U.S. Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad said on Twitter, adding that the United States also “deplored” recent Taliban attacks.

Ali Ahmad Faqir Yar, the governor of Adraskan district in Herat province counted at least eight civilians among the dead as he gave the death toll, but it was unclear if all of the other casualties were Taliban.

“Forty-five people had been killed so far in airstrikes by security forces in the Kham Ziarat area, Taliban were among those killed,” he said. Other local government officials in the province gave the same death toll.

Acting Defence Minister Asadullah Khalid said, during a ceremony broadcast on Tolo news channel, Taliban fighters were killed in the airstrike. His ministry issued a statement saying it was investigating the reports of civilian casualties, and would make the findings public.

Taliban spokesman Qari Muhammad Yousuf Ahmadi said eight civilians were killed and 12 wounded, but didn’t mention any Taliban casualties.

A spokesman for U.S. forces in Afghanistan said they were not involved in Wednesday’s airstrikes.

Condemning the attack, Khalilzad said reduced violence and an immediate start to peace talks was needed.

The United States is drawing down its troops in Afghanistan under an agreement struck in February with the Taliban.

The agreement aimed to pave the way for formal peace talks between the insurgents and the Afghan government, and Khalilzad is tasked with trying to bring both sides to the table.

A disagreement over the release of Taliban prisoners by the government and rising violence has hampered progress, and talks have yet to start.

Reporting by Storay Karimi and Orooj Hakimi; writing by Charlotte Greenfield; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore