By Ahmed Mengli, Mushtaq Yusufzai and Francis Whittaker
KABUL, Afghanistan — Dozens of Afghan civilians, including children, were feared dead Wednesday after government airstrikes hit a religious school graduation in the north of the country, witnesses told NBC News.
In the hours after Monday’s bombing, the Afghan Ministry of Defense insisted that the strikes had exclusively targeted senior Taliban insurgents plotting an attack on the military, before conceding the next day that civilians had died.
There are conflicting accounts as to casualty numbers, and the volatility of the region — much of which is held or contested by the insurgent group — makes independent reporting difficult.
However, attendees of the event that included families from the area said they had seen dozens of fatalities in the aftermath of the bombing. A chef who had been working at the ceremony told NBC News that he had been preparing food for 2,000 people.
Describing the attack in the Dasht-e-Archi district of Kunduz, another witness, Qari Abdul Rahim, told NBC News that he had been sitting in the third row when aircraft appeared overhead.
“I looked to the sky and saw smoke under the aircraft, and I dropped myself to the ground and managed to escape the building,” he said in a phone call.
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“I managed to get close to the building later on," he added. "I saw a lot of dead bodies, including children, on the road. While they were trying to escape, they were all hit."
Footage and photographs released by the Taliban purported to show dead and injured children being buried or carried away from the rubble on stretchers. The Taliban, which has a history of exaggerating its battlefield victories and underplaying its defeats, insisted none of their forces had been present at the ceremony.
Another witness said that many of those killed in the attack were “not recognizable,” so it would be “very difficult” to ascertain whether those killed were civilians or Taliban fighters.
On Monday, Afghan Defense Ministry spokesperson Mohammed Radmanish told a news conference in Kabul that aerial footage and images showed the Taliban gathered at a compound with vehicles and motorcycles brandishing Taliban and Pakistani flags. He added that 35 Taliban, including 18 commanders, were among the dead.
Multiple witnesses, including several who spoke to NBC News, contradicted these claims and insisted the gathering was at a madrasa — or religious school — where young men were graduating, having learned to read and write Arabic verses from the Quran. As reports emerged that civilians had been killed in the airstrikes, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) tweeted that it was “actively looking into disturbing reports of serious harm to civilians.”
UNAMA actively looking in to disturbing reports of serious harm to civilians yesterday from airstrike at #DashtiArchi, #Kunduz. Human Rights team on ground establishing facts. All parties reminded of obligations to protect civilians from impact of armed conflict. #Afghanistanpic.twitter.com/aRANBzOBzO
By Tuesday, the office of President Ashraf Gani issued a statement conceding that, while the army had carried out the operation “in order to save people from a huge disaster,” civilians had died in the airstrikes, and ordered an official investigation.
In a session in Parliament on Wednesday, opposition lawmakers heavily criticized the government for the airstrikes, and urged it to make the findings of their investigation public, according to Afghanistan's TOLO News.
The house speaker, Abdul Rauf Ibrahimi, said, “There is no doubt that the Taliban were also present there, but to be honest, such a move against a madrasa — where religion is taught — is not acceptable.”
Taliban sources told NBC News that the director of the seminary was sympathetic to the group and prayed for it to succeed in implementing Sharia throughout the country, although he was not a member of the group.
Kunduz, which the Taliban briefly seized in 2015, was the scene of one of the most serious civilian casualty incidents in the Afghanistan conflict, when U.S. airstrikes destroyed a hospital, killing 42 people, mostly patients and medical staff.
More recently, the city has been considered relatively secure, but it remains vulnerable. The Taliban, which has been fighting the U.S.-backed government in Kabul since being driven out of power after the 2001 U.S.-led invasion, controls much of the surrounding province.
Ahmed Mengli reported from Kabul, Mushtaq Yusufzai from Peshawar, Pakistan, and Francis Whittaker from London.