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Afghan Airstrike Targeting Taliban Kills 12 Children as Peace Talks Stall

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Afghan Airstrike Targeting Taliban Kills 12 Children as Peace Talks Stall

KABUL—An Afghan airstrike killed 12 children in a religious school, local officials said Thursday, as government forces responded to a wave of Taliban attacks that have raised questions about Kabul’s ability to secure the country after a U.S. troop drawdown.

The Afghan Ministry of Defense said all the victims of the strike were Taliban militants, but that it would still launch an investigation into the incident.

The airstrike on Wednesday in the northern province of Takhar came in response to two ambushes by the Taliban in the same region a day earlier that killed at least 44 government security forces, according to a provincial security official.

The Afghan air force mistook the religious school for a Taliban hideout, said Mohammad Azam Afzali, a member of the Takhar provincial council who is originally from Baharak district, where the strike took place. The 12 killed were all children, he said, in addition to 18 other injured civilians.

The Taliban offensive in Takhar is the worst of a wave of insurgent attacks since the group began its first-ever direct talks with the Afghan government in Qatar’s capital last month—jeopardizing the U.S.-brokered peace process.

The two sides have quickly found themselves at odds over procedural differences, including which religious school of thought should form the basis of negotiations.

Families displaced by fighting in Helmand province remained in temporary shelters in Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital, on Wednesday.



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As a sign of the toll of the violence at home, the Republic, as the government side is known, has insisted that its first priority in any negotiation is a nationwide cease-fire. The Taliban, whose main leverage is its ability to inflict pain on government forces and civilians, has refused calls for a truce.

The Taliban’s display of military strength is an attempt to gain leverage in the negotiations, Afghan and Western officials say. As President Trump aims to withdraw all American troops in the country by next summer, the Taliban assumes the U.S. will eventually pressure the Afghan government into giving them concessions, according to some Western officials.

The fighting has also laid bare the challenges facing the Afghan security forces in maintaining security as the U.S. withdraws.

As the peace talks have stalled, the Taliban for the past two weeks have mounted a large-scale offensive in Helmand province in the country’s south, capturing government checkpoints and prompting soldiers and police to flee their posts. Pushing government forces back to the edge of provincial capital Lashkar Gah, the Taliban regained territory in a matter of days that they had lost over the past four years.

The Taliban advance in Helmand was only halted last week when the U.S. conducted several airstrikes in support of Afghan forces.

The Afghan government has its own air force, but recent fighting has exposed its deficiencies. Last week at least nine people were killed when two Afghan Air Force helicopters carrying injured troops collided in Helmand.

Over the past 27 days, the Taliban carried out 1,160 attacks across the country, killing and wounding 555 civilians, according to Interior ministry spokesman Tariq Arian.

More than 35,000 civilians have been displaced from their homes by the recent fighting in Helmand, according to the United Nations.

Write to Sune Engel Rasmussen at sune.rasmussen@wsj.com

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