By Orooj Hakimi
KABUL/HERAT (Reuters) - Afghan President Ashraf Ghani on Monday expressed grief over the deaths of civilians in an airstrike by the country's military, a move that came a day after government officials said only Taliban fighters had been killed.
Locals in the southern province of Nimroz on Sunday said the airstrike by the Afghan air force had resulted in the deaths of 14 civilians, but government officials denied the claim. Residents later brought the bodies of the deceased to the provincial capital in protest.
In a statement, Ghani said he was "deeply saddened" over the civilian casualties from the airstrike in the Khashrod district of Nimroz province.
He said he had instructed authorities to reach out to the families of the victims.
Residents of the affected area, angered by the Nimroz governor's statement that those killed were Taliban fighters, said they would launch protests if the official did not apologise.
The death toll from the incident has risen to 18, according to locals. Eight children and seven women are among the dead, said Nematullah Siddiqi, a Nimroz provincial council member.
The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) also expressed concerns about the incident.
"UN urges open investigation, accountability & using findings to protect civilians," UNAMA said on Twitter.
The airstrike was carried out during clashes between Taliban fighters and government forces, even as the two sides were beginning a second round of peace negotiations in the Qatari capital of Doha.
The negotiations are meant to discuss contentious issues, including a ceasefire to stop the escalating violence in Afghanistan.
Nearly 6,000 Afghan civilians were killed or wounded in the first three quarters of last year as fighting between government forces and Taliban insurgents raged despite efforts to find peace, according to a UN report.
(Additional reporting by Storay Karimi in Herat and Abdul Qadir Sediqi in Kabul; Writing by Gibran Peshimam; Editing by Paul Simao)