Raid on al-Qaeda bomb factory leaves dozens of wedding-goers dead, in latest Afghan violence

US and Afghan Special Forces carried out a raid in Helmand specifically targeting a senior al-Qaeda leader who was hiding in a bomb factory which was producing explosive devices possibly to be used against voters in the impending presidential election, security officials have claimed.

While Pakistani-born Asim Umar, the first head of al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) escaped, his liaison man with al-Qaeda, chief Ayman al-Zawahiri, as well as the Taliban explosives chief for the province, his two deputies and two other Taliban leaders were among 22 fighters killed.

The chief bomb-maker, according to officials, blew himself up with a suicide vest – causing many of the deaths of his fellow fighters. Umar’s wife was among six Pakistani women and a Bangladeshi national arrested, and a huge cache of weapons was recovered.

Tribal leaders, politicians and officials in Helmand, however, disputed this account and accused the US and Afghan forces of killing around 40 civilians, most of them returning from a wedding party on Sunday night, many of them women and children.

Hamid Karzai, the former Afghan president, has been among public figures who has condemned the deaths and called for an investigation into what happened.

But the national security staff of his successor, Ashraf Ghani, the Afghan defence ministry and US military officials refuted the charges. They say that Umar had been tracked to the compound in the town of Musa Qala after extensive surveillance and was about to carry out terrorist acts when the military mission was authorised.

AQIS, which was set up by Zawahiri in 2014, is known to have operated in Pakistan and Bangladesh as well as Afghanistan. It is not known to have a strong presence in India, but has received support from some Kashmiri separatist groups, including Anasurut-Tawhid Wai Jihad Kashmir.

Four years ago, US forces raided an AQIS training facility in Kandahar, where they are believed to have established bases before branching out to Helmand, the former centre of British operations in Afghanistan. The town of Musa Qala, where the raid took place, had particular resonance, having changed hands several times under a British strategy of engagement with the Talibs, one which the Americans were highly critical.

US and Afghan forces faced fierce resistance, according to American officials, from a combined group of determined al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters when they surrounded a compound in Musa Qala late on Sunday night, with a firefight lasting more than six hours.

US warplanes were then called in to break the stalemate and carried out what American officials described as “precision strikes”, followed by the troops moving in.

Lieutenant Colonel Josh Jacques, a spokesman for US Forces-Afghanistan said: “We assess the majority of those killed in the fighting died from al-Qaeda weapons or in the explosion of the terrorists’ explosive caches or suicide vests.

“In the course of the operation, several foreigners associated with al-Qaeda were detained, including multiple persons from Pakistan and one from Bangladesh. Because of the heavy fighting, we did conduct targeted precision strikes against barricaded terrorists firing on Afghan and US forces.”

US officials say that they are attempting to establish whether women, apart from the ones they had captured, may have been hiding in the compound when the shooting and air strikes were taking place.

Mohammed Zaman Hamdard, an official with the Helmand police force, said that the al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters had fled into people’s homes during the raid and started shooting from there, drawing fire back in response. As a result “three women are among the dead, and three children are wounded”, he stated.

Karim Atal, a member of Helmand’s Provincial Council, said it had not been possible to obtain reliable information because mobile phones were not working in the area. US-led forces jam signals as a matter of routine during operations. “Some say 14 civilians were killed, others says 60, many are saying 40,” he said.

Abdul Majid Akhunzada, a fellow council member, claimed that at least 12 people from a wedding party were wounded in the air strike, but he was unaware of their identities. Omar Zowak, a spokesman for the Helmand Governorate, claimed that three cars had been hit from the air, but the numbers of wounded were unclear.