Rocket hits Afghan wedding, at least 15 killed, mostly women and children: Officials

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (AFP) - A rocket fired during fighting between Afghan forces and insurgents killed at least 15 wedding guests late on Wednesday in the southern province of Helmand, officials said, highlighting the continuing conflict after Nato's combat mission ended.

Most of the victims were women and children in the attack in Helmand's Sangin district, a Taleban stronghold where United States and British troops were involved in years of fierce fighting until the Nato withdrawal.

"At least 15 people were killed and 45 wounded when the rocket struck in a firefight between Afghan security forces and the Taleban," said Mr Fareed Ahmad Obaid, police spokesman for Helmand province. He said the victims had been attending a wedding at the time of the attack.

Mr Karem Atal, head of Helmand's provincial council, confirmed the incident and said the toll could rise after many wedding guests were rushed to hospital in Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital.

Nato's war in Afghanistan formally ended on Sunday, when the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) was replaced by the US-led follow-up mission "Resolute Support", which will focus on training and assisting Afghan forces.

The foreign force next year will consist of the 12,500-strong Nato mission, most of them US troops, and a US counter-terrorism operation outside the Nato remit, though final numbers remain unclear.

In total, an estimated 17,000 foreign soldiers will stay on to assist the local police and army, who face a major challenge as the international military presence declines.

The Taleban issued a statement on Wednesday celebrating the end of Nato's combat mission, adding that no peace talks could happen before all foreign troops leave the country.

"Today, they are evacuating their invading forces from Afghanistan while they are bitterly defeated by the just and pious Afghan resistance," the group said.

"The real solution of the ongoing Afghan crisis is in the complete and unconditional withdrawal of all foreign forces from this country.

"The presence of foreign occupiers is the main cause of instability and chaos."

The United Nations said civilian casualties hit a new high this year with about 10,000 non-combatants killed or wounded - 75 per cent of them by the Taleban.

The end of Nato's combat mission brought "the longest war in American history... to a responsible conclusion", US President Barack Obama said this week.

Afghan officials and senior US officers have been pushing Mr Obama to extend US involvement.

US troop numbers are set to halve within 12 months and fall to almost nothing in two years.

President Ashraf Ghani hopes to bring peace to Afghanistan after decades of conflict, saying he is open to talks with any insurgent group.

Afghan security forces will hold celebrations on Thursday marking the complete transfer of responsibility from Nato.

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