To hit back at the Taliban in Afghanistan, the US said it launched two missiles, one of which missed its intended target and killed at least one Afghan civilian.
The US response comes after the Taliban unleashed a barrage of rockets at the Kabul international airport in a brazen attack that the insurgents said targeted the plane of US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, who landed in Kabul on Wednesday.
Navy Capt William Salvin, spokesman for the US-led military coalition, said in a telephone interview that the US fired two Hellfire missiles. One struck its intended target, a building from which the insurgents had launched their mortar attack. The other one was programmed to hit the same target but went astray for unknown reasons, Salvin said.
At least one Afghan civilian was killed by the malfunctioning Hellfire and an undetermined number of other civilians were wounded, Salvin said.
“Tragically, one of the missiles malfunctioned, causing several casualties,” the US command said.
Afghan officials said one Afghan woman was killed and 11 civilians were wounded in the Taliban attack. Afghan special forces managed to repel the attackers, killing four in an ensuing gunbattle, officials said.
“We take every precaution to avoid civilian casualties, even as the enemies of Afghanistan continue to operate in locations that deliberately put civilians at very high risk,” the US-led coalition said in a statement.
The statement said the original Taliban attackers had fired several rounds of high-explosive ammunition, including mortars, in the vicinity of the Kabul airport.
The US statement said the insurgents also detonated suicide vests, “endangering a great number of civilians.”
Mattis was meeting with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani at the time of the attack, along with visiting NATO Secretary- General Jens Stoltenberg. Mattis’ plane was not hit.
Najib Danish, spokesman for the Interior Ministry, said the Taliban fired up to about six projectiles at and near the airport, hitting both the international and the military sector of the sprawling hub and also two civilian houses nearby. The gunbattle with Afghan special forces left “four of the terrorists dead,” he said.
Ghani said during a joint press conference with Mattis and Stoltenberg that Afghan special forces troops quickly brought the assault under control. Mattis called the attack “a crime”.
At the presser, both Mattis and Stoltenberg pledged continued support for Afghanistan and vowed to do everything possible so the country “doesn’t again become a safe haven for international terrorists.”
“If NATO forces leave too soon, there is a risk that Afghanistan may return to a state of chaos and once again become a safe haven for international terrorism,” Stoltenberg said.
Stoltenberg also said NATO was committed to funding the Afghan security forces until at least 2020, and would continue to provide them almost a $1 billion each year.
Mattis said Washington supports a negotiated settlement between the Taliban and Afghanistan. “The sooner the Taliban recognize they cannot win with bombs, the sooner the killing will end,” he said.
Last month, President Donald Trump hinted he would embrace the Pentagon’s proposal to boost troop numbers by nearly 4,000, augmenting the roughly 8,400 Americans now in Afghanistan.
The combined US and NATO troop contingent currently in the country is about 13,500.
(With inputs from agencies)