The Pentagon has said it is investigating reports of civilian casualties from a drone strike on Sunday in Kabul, but is “not in a position to dispute” accounts from the scene of nine people from one family being killed, including seven children.
US military officials continued to insist however that the strike hit an Islamic State (Isis) car bomb, pointing to “secondary explosions” at the scene. That conflicted with reports from Kabul, that the targeted vehicle belonged to a civilian and that children were in it when it was struck by a missile from a US drone.
Initial reports said at least 10 people were killed, nine from the same family, who lived on the street where the attack happened, adding to the bloodshed and chaos of the last days of the 20-year US military presence. Among the dead were three two-year-old children, two aged three and two aged 10, according to reports from Kabul.
A suicide bombing at one of the gates of Kabul airport on Thursday killed at least 170 Afghans and 13 US service members.
Kabul airport also came under rocket attack on Sunday but there were no reported casualties. One of the five rockets was brought down by a US defensive weapon called the Counter-Rocket, Artillery and Mortar System (C-Ram) which sends a hail of fire towards incoming projectiles.
The deadline for the final departure from Kabul airport, the last US toehold in Afghanistan, is on Tuesday, after a scrambled evacuation which has so far flown out 122,000 people, most of them Afghans who worked with or for coalition forces and foreign embassies.
Answering questions about the civilian deaths from the drone strikes, the Pentagon spokesman, John Kirby, said: “We are not in a position to dispute it right now, and we’re assessing, and we’re investigating.
“Nobody wants to see innocent life taken. We take it very, very seriously, and when we know that we have caused innocent life to be lost in the conduct of our operations, we’re transparent about it.”
Maj Gen Hank Taylor said the target was believed to have been a car bomb sent by the regional Isis affiliate, Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP).
“Significant secondary explosions from the targeted vehicle indicated the presence of a substantial amount of explosive material,” Maj Gen Taylor said.
Mr Kirby said decisions on whether or not to carry out a drone strike had to be taken very quickly because of the nature of the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) threat.
“We have to try to be as quick and as nimble as [ISKP] are,” the spokesman said. “We believed this to be an imminent threat. We took the action that we believed was the most necessary at the best opportunity to thwart that attack.”
Paul O'Brien, executive director of Amnesty International USA, said: "The United States has a responsibility to the families of those killed to name the dead, acknowledge its actions, investigate and provide reparations.
“For two decades the United States has carried out strikes with no accountability to the public for how many civilians were killed by US actions in Afghanistan and other countries. It is unconscionable that the Biden administration continues airstrikes in this shroud of secrecy.
“This airstrike is a glimpse into the future US involvement in Afghanistan if the Biden administration pushes ahead with an ‘over the horizon’ counter-terrorism programme that does not prioritise civilian protection.”
A relative of the victims, Ramin Yousufi, told the BBC the youngest child killed was two-year-old Sumaya and the oldest 12-year-old Farzad.
“It’s wrong, it’s a brutal attack, and it’s happened based on wrong information,” he said. “Why have they killed our family? Our children? They are so burned out we cannot identify their bodies, their faces.”
Another relative said the family had applied for evacuation and were waiting to be called to the airport.
As the massive evacuation effort entered its final hours, Mr Kirby said “there is still time” for US citizens still in Kabul to try to get on a flight. However, Taliban checkpoints in the streets around the airport were reported to be turning everyone back.
On the second to last day of the evacuation, 1,200 people were flown out on 26 US military transport planes, with another 50 on other coalition flights.
As the rearguard US force prepared to withdraw under fire, with more ISKP attacks still deemed imminent, Mr Kirby said: “We are in a particularly dangerous time.”
The political pressure on the Biden administration over the Afghanistan withdrawal mounted further on Monday with the leak of notes from conversations among top Pentagon officials, in which the defence secretary, Lloyd Austin, issued orders to prepare for “a mass casualty event” 24 hours before Thursday’s suicide attack on the airport.
According to Politico, which published excerpts from the conversation, Mr Austin’s order followed “significant” intelligence pointing to a “complex” attack by ISKP. However, the Abbey gate at Kabul airport was kept open to allow British soldiers and official to carry out the evacuation of their people from the nearby Baron hotel.
Asked about the report, Mr Kirby said he would not discuss a press story “informed by the unlawful disclosure of classified information about sensitive deliberations here at the Pentagon”. – Guardian