KABUL, Afghanistan — There were fears Thursday that a dozen children may have been killed in an Afghan airstrike targeting Taliban fighters in northeastern Afghanistan.
The Afghan Ministry of Defense said that it had killed 12 members of the Taliban in a militant-controlled area, including several commanders, but added that it had appointed an investigation team to assess allegations about civilian casualties resulting from this attack. The first vice president of Afghanistan denied that children were among the dead in Wednesday's strike.
But survivors in the Taloqan Provincial Hospital in the Takhar region, including an imam, Abdul Wali, told local journalist Najib Nazari that at least 12 children had been killed. Nazari told NBC News that the imam had said the airstrike hit his mosque in the village of Hazara Qarluq.
The local broadcaster Mah-e-Noor Radio Television Network, which is run by Nazari, reported that Takhar Gov. Abdullah Qarluq had accused the network of spying for the Taliban. The media organization denied the charge.
NBC News could not independently verify any of the claims and counterclaims.
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"The MoD [Ministry of Defense] has appointed an investigation team to assess allegations about civilian casualties resulting from this attack," the statement continued.
The defense ministry initially said the airstrike occurred Wednesday night, but later issued a correction to say that it happened at 2:30 p.m. local time Wednesday.
Senior Afghan politician Amrullah Saleh dismissed reports that children were killed as “baseless.”
"Those who shed our forces' blood and killed are now destroyed,” Saleh, the first Afghan vice president, said in a statement on his Facebook page Thursday. “Those who made wrong allegations will face legal action."
“The irrefutable evidence is with me,” he added, without offering any proof to back up his claim.
The New York-based Human Rights Watch said it was working to establish the accuracy around the deaths during the latest attack but said that the denial of civilian and child casualties by authorities "does fit a pattern."
"The United Nations has reported the Afghan air force has a terrible record when it comes to civilian deaths," Patricia Gossman, associate Asia director, said. "I'm not surprised the government would deny it ... It's really very frustrating."
Gossman said Human Rights Watch was urging the Afghan government to conduct thorough investigations after attacks by speaking to local hospitals, families and provincial governments to establish facts and "make an assessment." The Taliban was also "endangering civilians" through the fighting, she added.
"Unfortunately, this is kind of the war this is," she said.
Wednesday's attack follows a week of rising violence in the area, with clashes between the Taliban and the Afghan security forces taking place in the Baharak district in Takhar.
Taliban fighters killed at least 37 government officers in attacks over the past 72 hours in the region, provincial officials told Reuters, as the insurgents mounted an offensive, prompting government forces to call in air support.
Afghanistan is suffering heightened levels of violence despite talks underway in Qatar that could help the warring parties find a way out of the protracted conflict.
The United States signed an agreement with the Taliban in February to promote a negotiated end to its 19-year war in Afghanistan. Talks between the insurgents and an Afghan delegation began more than a month ago, but have yet to yield any major breakthrough.
Reuters contributed to this report.