Washington (Reuters): As many as 36 suspected Islamic State militants were killed in Afghanistan when the United States dropped "the mother of all bombs," its largest non-nuclear device ever unleashed in combat.
Thursday's strike came as US President Donald Trump dispatches his first high-level delegation to Kabul, amid uncertainty about his plans for the nearly 9,000 American troops stationed in Afghanistan.
The deaths have not been independently verified, but ministry spokesman Dawlat Waziri said no civilians were harmed in the massive blast that targeted a network of caves and tunnels.
"No civilian has been hurt and only the base, which Daesh used to launch attacks in other parts of the province, was destroyed," Waziri said in a statement. He was using an Arabic term that refers to Islamic State, which has established a small stronghold in eastern Afghanistan and launched deadly attacks on the capital, Kabul.
The 21,600-pound (9,797-kg) GBU-43 bomb, which has 11 tons of explosives, was dropped from a MC-130 aircraft in the Achin district of the eastern province of Nangarhar, bordering Pakistan, Pentagon spokesman Adam Stump said on Thursday.
The device, also known as the "mother of all bombs," is a GPS-guided munition that had never before been used in combat since its first test in 2003, when it produced a mushroom cloud visible from 20 miles (32 km) away.
Former Afghan president Hamid Karzai condemned the use of the weapon on Afghan soil. "This is not the war on terror, but the inhuman and most brutal misuse of our country as testing ground for new and dangerous weapons," he said on social media network Twitter.
At a village about 3 miles (5 km) from the remote, mountainous area where the bomb was dropped, homes and shops appeared unaffected by the blast, a Reuters witness said.
Residents said they saw militants climbing up and down the mountain every day, making occasional visits to the village.
"They were Arabs, Pakistanis, Chinese and local insurgents coming to buy from shops in the bazaar," said resident Raz Mohammad. On Friday, the village was swarming with Afghan and international troops, as helicopters and other aircraft flew overhead.
The strike was part of a joint operation between Afghan and international troops, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani's office said in a statement. "Afghan and foreign troops closely coordinated this operation and were extra cautious to avoid any civilian casualties," it said.
American officials said the bomb had been positioned for possible use in Afghanistan for "some time" since the administration of former president Barack Obama.
The United States has steadily intensified its air campaign against Islamic State and Taliban militants in Afghanistan, with the Air Force deploying nearly 500 weapons in the first three months of 2017, up from 300 in the corresponding 2016 period.