US air attack suspected in Kunduz hospital deaths
By JOSH SMITH | STARS AND STRIPES Published: October 3, 2015
KABUL, Afghanistan — The U.S. military acknowledged that a U.S. airstrike early Saturday was conducted near a Doctors Without Borders hospital in the embattled city of Kunduz, where aid agency officials said at least 19 people were killed in an aerial bombardment.
The French-founded nonprofit, known by its French initials, MSF, said airstrikes that directly hit the hospital continued for more than 30 minutes after staff told American and Afghan military commanders the facility was being hit.
“U.S. forces conducted an airstrike in Kunduz city at 2:15am (local), Oct. 3, against insurgents who were directly firing upon U.S. servicemembers advising and assisting Afghan Security Forces in the city of Kunduz. The strike was conducted in the vicinity of a Doctors Without Borders medical facility,” U.S. Forces Afghanistan said in a statement.
MSF reported that 12 staff members and seven patients from the intensive care unit, including three children, were killed in the aerial attack. More than 37 people were injured, including 19 staff members.
MSF condemned “in the strongest possible terms the horrific bombing.” The organization said the number of casualties could grow as there were still many patients and staff unaccounted for.
“All indications currently point to the bombing being carried out by international coalition forces,” MSF said in a statement, while calling for “total transparency” from the coalition as well as an independent investigation.
The military said an investigation had been opened “to obtain a complete assessment of the incident.”
The commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Gen. John F. Cambell, said in the statement he had spoken with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani about the incident. Ghani’s office said Campbell had apologized, but a military spokesman said he did not know the substance of the discussion.
“While we work to thoroughly examine the incident and determine what happened, my thoughts and prayers are with those affected,” Campbell said in the statement. “We continue to advise and assist our Afghan partners as they clear the city of Kunduz and surrounding areas of insurgents. As always, we will take all reasonable steps to protect civilians from harm.”
MSF and human rights officials condemned the attack.
“This attack is abhorrent and a grave violation of International Humanitarian Law,” MSF President Meinie Nicolai said. “We cannot accept that this horrific loss of life will simply be dismissed as ‘collateral damage,’” the term used in an initial statement by a U.S. military spokesman.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, called the attack on the hospital tragic and inexcusable, “possibly even criminal.”
Human Rights Watch said in a statement the incident raised “grave concerns about whether U.S. forces took sufficient precautions to identify and avoid striking the facility.”
Precise GPS coordinates for all of MSF’s facilities in Kunduz had been provided to “all parties to the conflict, including in Kabul and Washington,” several times over the past months, and most recently on Tuesday, MSF said in a statement.
Defense Secretary Ash Carter said in a statement officials were “still trying to determine exactly what happened.”
“The area has been the scene of intense fighting the last few days. U.S. forces in support of Afghan Security Forces were operating nearby, as were Taliban fighters,” his statement said. He said a full investigation “into the tragic incident” was underway in coordination with the Afghan government.
The Afghan Interior Ministry spokesman, Sediq Sediqqi, said 10 to 15 “terrorists” hiding in the hospital when it was struck all were killed, The Associated Press reported. Kunduz police spokesman Sayed Sarwar Hussaini also said insurgents were in the facility.
MSF could not confirm the reports of insurgents on the hospital grounds, but staff in the city disputed the claim, and human rights activists noted that, in any case, hospitals are never to be targeted.
The trauma center, the only one of its kind in the region and centrally located in the city, was “hit several times during sustained bombing and was very badly damaged,” MSF reported.
For more than an hour, the hospital was hit by intervals of incoming fire approximately every 15 minutes, the aid organization said, citing its staff in Kunduz.
“The bombs hit and then we heard the plane circle round,” said Heman Nagarathnam, MSF head of programs in northern Afghanistan. “There was a pause, and then more bombs hit. This happened again and again…the main hospital building was engulfed in flames. Those people that could had moved quickly to the building’s two bunkers to seek safety. But patients who were unable to escape burned to death as they lay in their beds.”
According to the MSF statement, portions of the hospital that housed the intensive care unit, emergency rooms, and physiotherapy ward were hit “very precisely” while surrounding structures remained unscathed.
Photos from the scene showed a badly burned, but not collapsed, building with shattered windows.
MSF said there were 105 patients and their caretakers in the hospital as well as more than 80 medical staff, both international and Afghan, when it was hit. All the reported casualties were Afghans, the group said. Since fighting broke out Monday when Taliban insurgents stormed the city, the hospital has treated 394 people.
Even as Afghan officials repeatedly declared the city secure, they have continued to struggle to rout Taliban militants, and U.S. forces have stepped up a bombing campaign in and around Kunduz. The U.S. has launched 12 airstrikes in Kunduz since the Taliban offensive started.
Although President Barack Obama declared America’s combat role in Afghanistan over at the end of 2014, increased violence across the country has thrust U.S. troops back into the battle in increasingly public ways, calling into question plans to extricate the U.S. from the conflict.
As of the end of August, American warplanes had released weapons during at least 282 sorties. U.S. forces conducted some two dozen strikes to aid Afghan troops in desperate fighting in Helmand province in August.
Ground troops have also increasingly been involved, with U.S. Special Forces engaging in at least one firefight with insurgents inside Kunduz city, and working with Afghan troops to call in airstrikes.
The Washington Post, citing an unnamed U.S. military official, reported Saturday that U.S. special forces soldiers advising Afghan commandos on the ground in Kunduz detected incoming fire and called for support from an AC-130 gunship overhead. The Post said it returned fire apparently near the hospital. An AC-130 would typically fire heavy guns, not bombs or missiles.
Heavy fighting has continued in neighboring provinces as well, where U.S. warplanes conducted at least two airstrikes Friday. Security forces fought to regain control of Baharak and Warduz districts in Badakhshan province, with the U.S. Embassy in Kabul issuing an emergency warning to American citizens to leave the province, including the capital city of Faizabad, as the Taliban moved in.
In Kunduz, house-to-house fighting continued Saturday, with police reporting many Taliban had holed up in houses.
MSF staff stayed in the city despite nearly a week of constant fighting, and the tragedy struck an emotional chord with many who have been inspired by their work.
“Kunduz city is burning,” Kunduz lawmaker Fatima Aziz said through tears. “Many doctors, nurses and patients were drowned in blood in the hospital last night. From one side, the Taliban are killing our people and from the other side, the Afghan and foreign forces kill them.”
Aid organizations have described a dire humanitarian situation in the besieged provincial capital, with many clinics struggling to find enough medical supplies. That situation was compounded with the destruction of parts of the MSF facility, which resulted in the loss of many much-needed supplies and equipment, officials said.
The Taliban also released a statement online condemning what they called, “”this American crime.”
An errant U.S. airstrike in Logar province in July killed as many as eight Afghan troops, and previous incidents of civilian casualties have strained relations between Afghanistan and its international backers.
In 2009, Kunduz province was the scene of a coalition airstrike that killed as many as 90 people, the vast majority civilians. That incident involved American warplanes, which were called in by German forces.