TEHRAN (Press Shia Agency) – At least 70 people have been killed in Afghanistan’s northern province of Kunduz after Afghan military helicopters bombed a religious gathering on Monday, local officials said.

The helicopters attacked a religious ceremony for which about 1,000 people had assembled in a mosque and surrounding fields around noon, The New York Times quoted Nasruddin Saadi, district governor of Dasht-e-Archi, as saying.

Witnesses said that the mosque was also a madrasa, or religious school, and that members of the Taliban had been present at the assembly, which had been organized to recognize graduates.

Saadi also said that the event was religious in nature and that the security forces had decided to attack because armed militants were in attendance.

However, Brig. Gen. Mohammad Radmanish, a spokesman for the Defense Ministry denied that the gathering had been for religious purposes. “The Taliban and other insurgent groups were planning to attack Afghan forces, but their plan was discovered by our forces,” he said.

“During the attack by our helicopters, 21 terrorists, including a Taliban commander, have been killed,” he added. “It isn’t a residential area, and only terrorists and the Taliban were active in the place. There wasn’t any civilian in the area.”

Nonetheless, witnesses said that children and other civilians were among the victims.

The district of Dasht-e-Archi is a Taliban stronghold that has often been the scene of heavy fighting.

The Taliban issued a statement confirming the attack on the madrassa, but denied its fighters had been meeting at the school.