Afghanistan’s government says it is investigating Wednesday’s deadly air strike in Adraskan, Herat province, which has killed several civilians.

At least eight civilians were killed when an Afghan air strike hit a group of people who had gathered to celebrate a Taliban commander’s recent release from prison, officials said on Thursday. Reports on the day placed the casualties at 45, with an unknown number of non-combatants killed.

The strike in the western province of Herat on Wednesday drew condemnation from a top US diplomat and underscores the worsening violence in Afghanistan’s war even as the Taliban and Kabul are supposed to be preparing for peace talks.

According to Ali Ahmad Faqir Yar, the district governor in the area the strike took place, a group of people had gathered to welcome the Taliban commander.

“An air strike was carried out during the ceremony and civilians who participated were among those killed,” he said, putting the toll at eight civilians dead and 16 wounded.

On their website, the Taliban said the insurgent had been released from Bagram prison outside Kabul on Tuesday.

It was not immediately clear if the commander had survived the attack or how many insurgents were killed or wounded. The defence ministry said it was investigating.

Taliban fighter released

The commander, Ghulam Nabi, had been released as part of a contentious prisoner exchange aimed at moving negotiations between the government and the Taliban forward, a second and critical phase of a peace deal between the US and Taliban.

District elders and well-wishers had arrived to welcome Nabi when the attack began, the witnesses said. Nabi’s 9-year-old son was apparently wounded in the attack.

US Peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad tweeted a condemnation of the violence and welcomed the government investigation.

The United Nations has been critical of the increasing death toll among civilians in Afghanistan, caused by both sides in the protracted conflict.

“In Herat, photos and eyewitness accounts suggest many civilians including children are among the victims of an Afghan air strike. We condemn the attack and support an investigation,” Khalilzad tweeted.

Undermining peace deal? 

The Taliban issued a statement denouncing attacks on Taliban prisoners freed as part of the peace deal. 

The deal calls for the government to release 5,000 Taliban in jails throughout the country and the insurgent movement to free 1,000 government personnel, including Afghan security forces.

The statement warned that violence against freed prisoners will undermine the deal signed in February and make the job of keeping freed prisoners from returning to the battlefield that much more difficult.

“Such actions can force prisoners who are recently released and wish for a normal life to take up weapon against the enemy again,” said the statement.

Witness Abdul Khaliq, whose brother Abdullah was in a hospital in Herat with injuries from the attack, said “these victims are not Taliban. They just wanted to meet a relative returning home.”

“They saw women wearing their scarves covering themselves and running for safety and still they hit them too,” Rahmati said. He called for an international investigation into the air strike.

The US-Taliban peace deal was touted as the best hope for peace in Afghanistan after decades of war at the time of its signing on Feb. 29. 

While the US and NATO have already begun reducing their troop strength, the second phase of the deal – which calls for Afghans on both sides of the conflict to sit at the negotiation table – has been delayed. Much of the delays have been as a result of Kabul’s reluctance to free some Taliban prisoners identified for release as part of the agreement.

For the Taliban’s part, the agreement calls on them to ensure Afghanistan is not again used as a safe haven for terrorists to attack the US and its allies. However, the details of how the militant group will fulfil that commitment have not been released by Washington, citing security reasons.