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Doctors group denies Taliban fighters were using hospital as base

A hospital run by Doctors Without Borders burns after being struck by bombs during fighting in Kunduz, Afghanistan, early on Saturday, Oct. 3, 2015. The U.S. military reported that an American airstrike may have struck a hospital.

COURTESY OF DOCTORS WITHOUT BORDERS

By TIM CRAIG | The Washington Post | Published: October 8, 2015

KABUL — The U.S. military aircraft that attacked an Afghan hospital over the weekend made at least five passes over it dropping explosives, even though two flags draped across the roof of the building marked it as a medical facility, hospital officials said Thursday.

In a news conference here in the Afghan capital, Doctors Without Borders officials reiterated that they think the hospital's main building was "deliberately" targeted because it was the only structure hit during the bombardment. They denied that any Taliban fighters in the hospital were armed or using it as a base.

The building that was attacked housed an emergency room, intensive-care unit, blood lab, X-ray room and outpatient waiting room. At 2:08 a.m. Saturday, a large warplane appeared overhead and began strafing the one-story building, located in Kunduz in northern Afghanistan, officials said.

The plane then circled around to drop more explosives on the building, repeating that process at least four times over the course of an hour. All other buildings on the grounds of the hospital, including patient rooms, were spared, said Guilhem Molinie, director of Doctors Without Borders operations in Afghanistan.

Said Christopher Stokes, executive director of the organization, which is also known by its French name, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF): "The attack on the hospital in Kunduz constituted a major breach of trust. A hospital is a place of safety, not carnage."

Hospital officials had previously stated that they had given Afghan and coalition troops the GPS coordinates of the buildings. Those coordinates pinpointed the front steps to the emergency room, officials said Thursday. Two 6-by-9-foot flags with the organization's red and white logo also were draped across the roof, they said.

U.S. officials have said that an AC-130 "gunship," which is used to support American Special Operations troops and can fire a range of ammunition, carried out the raid. It is not immediately clear whether the crew of the fighter craft, which uses infrared technology at night, could distinguish the markings on a flag.

Gen. Joseph F. Campbell, commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan, said Monday that the Afghan military requested the airstrike but that it was vetted through the U.S. military chain of command. Afghan officials said they are awaiting the outcome of three coalition and Afghan military investigations before commenting on Campbell's assertion.

On Wednesday, Doctors Without Borders announced that it is seeking an independent investigation to explore whether it will press for war crimes charges under the Geneva Conventions.

President Obama called the organization's executive director Wednesday to apologize.

But Stokes said he and other hospital executives want assurances from Afghan leaders that they can safely continue their operations in Afghanistan. Doctors Without Borders also operates two clinics in Kabul, one in Khost province and one in Helmand province.

"The overwhelmingly shocking nature of this event forces us to take stock of our work in Afghanistan generally, and to carefully weigh the commitment to our patients and staff against the risks of working in such dangerous conditions," Stokes said. "In the coming days, we will be holding meetings with Afghan officials . . . seeking reaffirmation that MSF can safely operate here."

In the aftermath of the bombing, which killed at least 22 people, some Afghan leaders have suggested that the hospital had become a command center for Taliban fighters who seized control of Kunduz on Sept. 28.

Hospital officials denied that assertion Thursday, although they conceded that they had been treating wounded Taliban fighters, some of whom probably were in the building at the time of the attack. They said Taliban fighters were cared for in the same manner as other patients in accordance with international law designating hospitals as "noncombatant" zones.

"As soon as someone enters the gate of the hospital, there is no more affiliation, no more discrimination on their origin or affiliation," Molinie said. "As soon as someone enters, he is a patient."

In the days leading up to the bombing, hospital officials said, Taliban fighters at times were kept in beds beside Afghan soldiers.

Before the air raid began early Saturday, Molinie said it had been "a quiet night" with no major fighting reported in the vicinity of the hospital.

But Doctors Without Borders has been reluctant to make hospital staff members available for media interviews.

The group has also not released the identities of those killed in the attack, except to say that 12 of them were staff members and 10 were patients. An additional 24 staff members and nine patients remain unaccounted for, hospital officials said.

After the Taliban seized control of Kunduz last week, local residents said the neighborhoods around the hospital were effectively under Taliban control.

Two days before the hospital bombing, Amnesty International said the Taliban posed a grave threat to civilians. The group said it had been receiving reports of "mass murder, gang rapes and house-to-house searches" by Taliban fighters. Most other international groups, including the United Nations, removed staff from Kunduz as the Taliban advanced.

On Thursday, Doctors Without Borders officials defended their decision to remain in the area. They said they had regular contact with Taliban officials and had received assurances of safety.

"The very reason you have a trauma center is to be able to operate on war victims, and you want to be able to operate in these kinds of conditions," Stokes said. "We had been given guarantees. We had given all the coordinates to all of the parties. We had not received a specific request to leave. . . . We were still receiving a lot of civilian casualties, including women and children."

When the attack on the hospital began Saturday, most patients and staff members relocated to an underground shelter.

But at least seven patients burned to death in the intensive care unit, including several family members who had been shot Friday evening as they tried to flee Kunduz in their vehicle, hospital officials said.

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Sayed Salahuddin in Kabul contributed to this report.
 

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