HERAT, Afghanistan (Reuters) - An insurgent commander targeted by a U.S. air strike in western Afghanistan may have survived, but the U.S. military is checking reports that civilians were among the dead, the military said on Thursday.
The U.S. military said on Wednesday Mullah Mustafa and 16 fighters had been killed in a targeted air strike in Ghor province, describing the commander as a “warlord” reported to have links with both Iran and the Taliban.
It said he had been struck after being observed meeting with armed men at a remote location where no civilians were present.
But on Thursday, the military issued an updated statement, which said “credible reports surfaced that Mustafa survived the attack” and “unsubstantiated reports of civilian casualties emerged.” It said it was checking the reports of civilian deaths.
Ghor’s deputy governor, Keramuddin Rezazada, told Reuters he was not able to confirm whether Mustafa had been killed, and villagers had reported that 10 civilians as well as 12 armed men were killed in the strike.
Provincial authorities had sent a team to investigate, he said.
Civilian casualties from U.S. air strikes have become a major source of friction between Washington and the Afghan government and have caused widespread anger within Afghanistan.
The newly-named commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, who is expected to take up his post this month, has said strikes that kill civilians are a threat to U.S. success in the war.
The issue became especially fraught after an air strike last month in western Farah province, in which the Afghan government says 140 civilians died. The U.S. military has acknowledged procedures were not fully obeyed in those strikes, and says 20-35 civilians and a larger number of fighters were killed.
U.S. forces in Afghanistan rely on air strikes to protect U.S., NATO and Afghan troops under fire, and also in “intelligence-driven operations” aimed at killing suspected militant commanders.
They say they have tightened procedures over the past year for both types of strikes, requiring additional checks to ensure that civilians are not hurt.
Additional reporting and writing by Peter Graff in KABUL; Editing by Sugita Katyal