The US carried out what it called a defensive airstrike in Kabul, targeting a suspected ISIS-K suicide bomber who posed an “imminent” threat to the airport, US Central Command said Sunday.
The Pentagon has said the strike resulted in secondary explosions, and those explosions may have been what killed the civilians.
The youngest victims of Sunday’s airstrike were two 2-year-old girls, according to family members.
Relatives found the remains of one of the girls, Malika, in the rubble near their home on Monday. A family member told CNN that it was unclear whether Malika had been inside the vehicle or in the compound when the strike hit.
They were “an ordinary family,” a brother of the one of those killed said. “We are not ISIS or Daesh and this was a family home — where my brothers lived with their families.”
Relatives of the victims spent Monday at a Kabul hospital identifying remains and separating them into coffins. The 2-year-old girls, Malika and Sumaya, were among the names marked on the coffins.
At a funeral held later in the day, family members shouted “Death to America.”
Army Maj. Gen. William Taylor of the Joint Staff told a press briefing Monday: “We are aware of reports of civilians casualties. We take these reports extremely seriously.”
On Monday, Pentagon spokesman John F. Kirby said the US works hard to avoid civilian casualties. “We’re investigating this. I’m not going to get ahead of it. But if we have significant — verifiable information that we did take innocent life here, then we will be transparent about that, too. Nobody wants to see that happen,” he said.
“But you know what else we didn’t want to see happen. We didn’t want to see happen what we believe to be a very real, a very specific and a very imminent threat to the Hamid Karzai International Airport and to our troops operating at the airport as well as civilians around it and in it and that is another thing that we were very concerned about.”
Neighbors and witnesses at the scene of the drone strike in Kabul told CNN that several people were killed, including children.
“All the neighbors tried to help and brought water to put out the fire and I saw that there were five or six people dead,” a neighbor told CNN. “The father of the family and another young boy and there were two children. They were dead. They were in pieces. There were [also] two wounded.”
Another neighbor told CNN that they estimated that there might have been up to 20 people killed in the strike, “not much is left of their house and nothing can be recognized, they are in pieces.”
Another witness told CNN that after the strike, neighbors and onlookers “removed six dead bodies” and believes that there are “children who are still missing.”
The US military said in their statement on Sunday that “significant secondary explosions from the vehicle indicated the presence of a substantial amount of explosive material,” and “may have caused additional casualties.”
“We would be deeply saddened by any potential loss of innocent life,” Capt. Bill Urban, spokesman for US Central Command, said in a statement.
US forces have been racing to complete their evacuation operation before Tuesday’s deadline and under the threat of a new terror attack on Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul. A suicide bombing outside the airport gates on Thursday killed 13 US service members and at least 170 others.
Sunday’s drone strike on a vehicle is the second by US forces targeting the ISIS-K terror group in the space of three days. A US official confirmed the location of the strike as being in Kabul’s Khaje Bughra neighborhood.
“US military forces conducted a self-defense unmanned over-the-horizon airstrike today on a vehicle in Kabul, eliminating an imminent ISIS-K threat to Hamid Karzai International Airport,” the CENTCOM statement read.
The Taliban, which is now in control of Afghanistan, condemned the strike later Sunday, saying the US had violated the country’s sovereignty.
Bilal Kareemi, a Taliban spokesperson, told CNN that it was “not right to conduct operations on others’ soil” and that the US should have informed the Taliban. “Whenever the US conducts such operations, we condemn them,” he said.
How the strike happened
The vehicle that was targeted by the US in Sunday’s airstrike on Kabul was next to a building and contained one suicide bomber, a US official told CNN.
It remains unclear if the vehicle was intended to be a car bomb, or if the suicide bomber was using it for transport.
“It was loaded up and ready to go,” the official tells CNN.
A Pentagon official told CNN that according to initial reports, the target was a vehicle believed to be containing multiple suicide bombers. The threat could also have been a car bomb or someone with a suicide vest, he said, citing initial reports.
One man told a journalist working with CNN who visited the compound that “a rocket hit and six people were in there who have been killed. There was a car inside.” The journalist was not allowed to enter the compound.
Another man said that he heard the sound of a rocket and gained access to the scene from a neighbor’s house.
“First we managed to remove a 3- to 4-year old child. The fire and smoke had engulfed the whole area,” he said.
He added that “three people were inside the car” and three others were outside the car. The injured, who included children, were taken to the hospital, he said.
US President Joe Biden said Saturday that military commanders had advised that “another terrorist attack on Kabul’s airport was “highly likely in the next 24-36 hours,” and the US Embassy in Kabul warned all US citizens to leave the airport area immediately.
Approximately 1,200 people were evacuated from the capital in the last 24 hours, almost entirely on US military flights, according to the White House on Monday. That figure is down from a high point last week when 21,000 people were evacuated in a 24-hour period.
It brings the total to approximately 116,700 people evacuated from Afghanistan since August 14, and 122,300 people since late July.
Biden traveled to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware on Sunday to mourn with the families of the 13 US service members killed in Thursday’s attack as their bodies were brought back to US soil.
US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said in a statement that the 13 would be remembered as heroes. “These men and women made the ultimate sacrifice so that others could live,” he said.
ISIS in Khorasan, known as ISIS-K, has claimed that an ISIS militant carried out the suicide attack, but provided no evidence to support the claim. US officials have said the group was likely behind the bombing.
On Saturday, the Pentagon said two “high profile” ISIS targets had been killed and another injured in a US drone strike late Friday in Jalalabad, in Afghanistan’s eastern Nangarhar province, in a retaliatory strike for Thursday’s attack.
This story has been updated with additional information from the Pentagon about the airstrike.