U.S. air strikes killed 17 policemen by mistake during a battle with insurgents in the country’s southern Helmand province, Afghan and U.S. military officials said on Friday.
Attaullah Afghan, head of the provincial council, said the air strikes took place around 9 p.m. local time Thursday outside the province’s capital of Lashkar Gah, during clashes between Afghan police and the Taliban.
Afghan added 14 policemen were also wounded in the strikes.
Deadly incidents of friendly fire in U.S. military support for its Afghan allies have happened before, but are not common. Afghanistan’s beleaguered security forces come under near daily attacks by Taliban insurgents even as the U.S. is trying to broker a peace deal to end nearly 18 years of war.
A U.S. military spokesman, Col. Dave Butler, said the air strike was called in by Afghan security forces who were taking heavy fire from Taliban fighters.
Before dropping the bombs, Butler said the U.S. along with its allies on the ground sought to ensure the area was clear of friendly forces. An Afghan co-ordination force reported the targeted areas were safe from fellow personnel.
“Unfortunately, they were not and a tragic accident resulted,” Butler said in a written reply to an Associated Press request for information on the deaths.
He said both Afghan security forces and Taliban were killed in the strike.
“We’re examining the miscommunication to ensure it is not repeated,” said Butler. “We regret this tragic loss of life of our partners and are committed to improvement every day with every mission.”
Helmand’s governor, Mohammad Yasin, said Afghan authorities were also investigating. A Taliban statement claimed U.S. forces were behind the incident.
In the last year, the number of U.S. air strikes has risen, most often in response to Afghan requests for assistance, but also in an intensified campaign against Islamic State group militants, who are mostly headquartered in eastern Afghanistan.
A higher frequency of U.S. air strikes has led to more civilian deaths, according to UN reports. A quarterly estimate by the UN issued recently said more civilians were killed by Afghan and U.S. forces than by insurgents in the first months of 2019.