LASHKAR GAH, Afghanistan — At least 28 people, many of them women and children, were killed when rockets fired by Afghan army soldiers hit a wedding party in southern Afghanistan, officials said Thursday, as President Ashraf Ghani marked the country’s transition to full sovereignty after the formal end of the 13-year international military mission.
The head of the army in southern Helmand province, where the incident happened, said investigations were focusing on whether the house was purposefully targeted by soldiers in checkpoints at least three kilometres (1.8 miles) away.
Gen. Sultan Mahmoud said that early investigations indicated that artillery had been fired in the direction of the house from both north and south from a distance of three kilometres (1.8 miles).
“We are seeing no evidence that the Taliban can fire from that distance, and as the Taliban positions were only one kilometre from the checkpoint, why was it necessary to use artillery that can travel so far,” Mahmoud said.
The incident happened in volatile Sangin district while guests were awaiting the arrival of the bride at the home of her cousin Abdul Haleem in Sarwankhala district.
The tribal leader of Sarwankhalain, Taj Mohammad, presented 35 bodies to provincial Governor Mohammad Naeem, but deputy police chief Bacha Gull said he could only confirm that 28 people were killed. The strike late Wednesday also wounded at least 51 people, he said.
Abdullah Jan, 12, said he still does not know where his mother is after being knocked unconscious while running to welcome the bride, and waking up hours later in the hospital.
“We were ready to go to sleep when my auntie came and said the bride had arrived. My mother went out to see the bride and I was running after her, toward the door when I heard the sound of blast and some bright flash like a fire hit me,” said Abdullah. Both his legs were broken and he suffered burns to his belly.
“Then I couldn’t see anything. I heard people shouting and after that I didn’t know what happened. The next time I opened my eyes I was here,” he said.
Sangin, in the poppy-producing Helmand River valley, has been the scene of fighting between government forces and Taliban for the past six months, since U.S. forces departed as part of the transition to Afghan sovereignty.
The international mission to rid Afghanistan of insurgents under the leadership of the United States and NATO officially ended on Dec. 31. Afghanistan takes full responsibility for its own affairs from Thursday.
In a televised address, Ghani told Afghans to support their security forces in the interests of building a strong and peaceful Afghanistan.
“If, a year ago today, you had listened to regional and international analysts, they would never have thought that today would happen,” Ghani said. “They were thinking how can a country with the problems that Afghanistan has successfully complete a security and political transition.”
He thanked the international community for the sacrifices soldiers made during the U.S.-led NATO mission. A total of 2,224 American soldiers died, according to an Associated Press tally.
“I hope it is clear that equipping, supporting and strengthening Afghan security forces is an investment, so that the citizens of your country can be safe,” Ghani said. “A stable Afghanistan brings international stability and prevents international threats.”