Anne CHAON - Female athletes wearing headscarves raced Friday against a backdrop of russet-hued mountains, more for the taste of freedom than the feat of winning Bamiyan 's international marathon , Afghanistan's only mixed-gender sporting event.

Braving the autumn chill and defying convention, the 15 women - including six Afghans and an Iranian - rubbed shoulders with male athletes, starting the marathon at the base of cliffs that once sheltered giant Buddha statues, blown up by the Taliban in 2001.

They ran in flowing white shirts, but even these felt unusually free: Nilofar, a 21-year-old medical student from Mazar-i-Sharif, said she usually trains in leggings and a dress that goes down past her knees. "Running gives me freedom ," she said.

More than 100 runners in total, both Afghan and foreigner, participated in the marathon , a 42-kilometre loop that started and ended at the base of the world famous Buddha caves.

The race, organised for the second consecutive year by two Englishmen - James Bingham and James Willcox - does not simply represent a rare sporting success in conflict-torn Afghanistan. It also stands as a metaphor of freedom in a conservative country where running in public is widely seen as nothing short of a subversive act for women.

Bamiyan , perched in Afghanistan's central highlands, is a rare oasis of tranquility which has largely been spared the wrenching conflict that afflicts the rest of the country. It is a perfect venue where athletes such as Nilofar can run freely.

"In Mazar-i-Sharif, I train in parks with permission of the governor who supports us. I cannot run in the streets," said Nilofar.

Other female runners face similar restrictions, such as 18-year-old Samana, who can normally only run in her Kabul neighbourhood before daybreak when the area is secluded. But Nilofar, who participated in a race in Kabul in the summer of 2015, recalls being harassed there.

"We were four girls, passers-by kept bothering and harassing us, and cars kept coming in our way. Women who run in public are deemed crazy," she said. "Fortunately, two Afghan male runners came to our rescue and stayed close to us."

The female athletes faced no harassment in Bamiyan - running freely along a picturesque route as they passed by puzzled but friendly farmers and livestock occasionally blocking the way.

Running 'full of risks'

"Running is full of risks - sometimes we get beaten up. People are not used to seeing women running, but I have to keep going in order to pave the way for other women," said Kubra, another young athlete from Kabul.

"In about two or three years, people will get used to seeing us women running."

Kubra was encouraged to participate in the marathon by Cornelia Schneider from "Free To Run", an organisation which helps women and girls in conflict-affected areas.

On the marathon trail, Kubra ran alongside Martin Parnell, a Canadian star in his 60s well-known for record-breaking feats including running 250 marathons in one year.

Running in Bamiyan can be daunting: the valley is at an elevation of 2,500 metres (8,200 feet), and the runners climbed until 3,000 metres, even though many of the participants had little time to acclimatise to the altitude.

Mahsa Torabi, from neighbouring Iran, was running short of breath.

This April, she became the first Iranian woman to complete a marathon in the ancient city of Shiraz since 1979. The 42-year-old now hopes to organise a mixed marathon in Tehran in the spring. "I wanted to test myself and show that Muslim women can also run a marathon ," she said.

"I want to tell other women: 'You can do it!'"

Angry mourners bury victims

Hundreds of mourners gathered on Friday to bury more than 30 civilians killed in an air strike called in to protect Afghan and US forces during a raid on suspected Taliban militants outside the northern city of Kunduz.

There was an angry mood in Buz Kandahari, the village outside Kunduz where the raid took place in the early hours of Thursday, as white-shrouded bodies, many of small children, were laid out for burial.

"My brother and three of his children were killed. My brother had no connection to any group, he was a labourer," said Mawlawi Haji Allahdad, a resident of the village. "Did you see which of those infants and children who were killed by the Americans were terrorists?"

"We will avenge our dead against the Americans and the government," he said.

Two Americans and four members of the Afghan special forces were killed during the initial raid, a month after Taliban fighters managed to enter Kunduz, threatening a repeat of their success a year earlier when they briefly captured the city.

The fighting underlined how precarious the security situation around Kunduz remains. Although the city centre was eventually secured last month, the Taliban control much of the surrounding district, including the area of Buz Kandahari.

Officials from the NATO-led Resolute Support mission in Kabul have said it takes all reports of civilian deaths seriously and would investigate.

Human rights group Amnesty International called for an inquiry into the incident, saying those killed in the air strike deserved justice. "This cannot be another example of inaction in the face of such loss of life," said Champa Patel, Amnesty International's South Asia Director.

Former Afghan President Hamid Karzai, a trenchant critic of the use of American air power in Afghanistan, condemned the strikes, but otherwise reaction from Afghan political leaders was relatively muted.

Speaking at an event in Kabul, Government Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah expressed his condolences to the victims and said there would be an investigation into the incident. He said the Taliban used Kunduz residents as human shields.

The use of air strikes in civilian areas came under heavy criticism last year after 42 people were killed in a strike against a hospital operated by aid group Medecins sans Frontieres in Kunduz.

According to figures from the United Nations, there was a 72 percent increase in civilian casualties caused by air strikes in the period from January to September, with 133 deaths and 159 injured. One third were caused by international forces.

However, Afghan military officials see US air power as a vital support in the fight against the Taliban while the country's own nascent air force is still being built, and the number of air strikes has spiked sharply this year.