Airstrike Hits Afghan Hospital, Aid Workers Among 19 Dead

  • U.S. military said it mounted attack near a medical facility
  • Doctors Without Borders says 12 staff among those killed

A hospital where Doctors Without Borders was treating people injured in fighting in the Afghan city of Kunduz came under fire early Saturday, possibly from U.S. aircraft, and at least 19 people were killed, including 12 aid workers.

Doctors Without Borders (MSF) staff are seen after a US airstrike on MSF hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan.

Source: MSF/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Dozens of hospital staff and patients were wounded in what the aid group described as a sustained bombing as Afghan soldiers backed by international forces continue to battle Taliban fighters in the northern city.

The airstrike was directed at insurgents who were firing on U.S. soldiers advising and assisting Afghan Security Forces, the Pentagon said in an e-mailed statement. The strike was conducted in the vicinity of a Doctors Without Borders medical facility, the military said.

U.S. Army spokesman Colonel Brian Tribus said in an e-mailed statement that “the strike may have resulted in collateral damage to a nearby medical facility.”

President Obama extended “deepest condolences to the medical professionals and other civilians killed and injured in the tragic incident,” at the hospital in Kunduz, according to an e-mailed statement from the White House. The Defense Department has started a full investigation, and will “await the results of that inquiry before making a definitive judgment as to the circumstances of this tragedy,” according to the statement.

The area has been the scene of intense fighting in recent days, U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said in a statement, adding that both U.S. and Taliban forces were operating nearby. “While we are still trying to determine exactly what happened, I want to extend my thoughts and prayers to everyone affected,” he said.

Precise Bombing

The pre-dawn bombing continued for more than 30 minutes after the aid group told U.S. and Afghan military officials in Kabul and Washington that its facility was under fire, the aid group said in a statement on its website. It said the hospital was repeatedly hit “very precisely” while surrounding buildings were not damaged.

“MSF urgently seeks clarity on exactly what took place and how this terrible event could have happened,” it said, using the acronym for its French name, Medecins Sans Frontieres. It said it had previously given all sides in the conflict the exact locations of its hospital, guesthouse and stabilization unit.

“All indications currently point to the bombing being carried out by international coalition forces,” the group said in an e-mailed statement later Saturday. It demanded an independent investigation to ensure “maximum transparency and accountability.” There were 105 patients and caretakers and over 80 MSF international and national staff in the hospital at the time, the group said in the statement.

At least 19 people were killed -- seven patients, including three children, and 12 MSF employees, the group said. It said 37 people were seriously wounded, including 19 MSF workers.

“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.

“When I made it out from the office, 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.”

Air Support

Afghan security officials patrol in the city center following an operation aimed at retaking Kunduz from the Taliban.

Photographer: Jawad Dehsabzi/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The attack comes days after Taliban guerrillas captured Kunduz, a strategically located city of about 300,000 in northern Afghanistan, in less than 24 hours of fighting. Afghan forces said they regained Kunduz on Oct. 1 after fighting street battles with Taliban militants. The U.S. provided supporting airstrikes.

U.S. Army General John Campbell, the commander of the NATO mission, said in an e-mail that he had spoken with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.

“While we work to thoroughly examine the incident and determine what happened, my thoughts and prayers are with those affected.,” Campbell said. “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.”

Taliban fighters were neither near the hospital nor had patients in it, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahed said in an e-mailed statement.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said there must be a swift, full and transparent investigation into the airstrike that hit the clinic.

“This event is utterly tragic, inexcusable, and possibly even criminal,” Zeid said in a statement. “International and Afghan military planners have an obligation to respect and protect civilians at all times, and medical facilities and personnel are the object of a special protection. These obligations apply no matter whose air force is involved, and irrespective of the location.”

The U.S. will continue to work closely with President Ghani, the Afghan government, and international partners to support the Afghan National Defense and Security forces as they work to secure their country, according to the White House statement.

President Ghani late Saturday in an e-mailed statement expressed his “deep sorrow” over the killing and wounding of civilians including the staff and doctors of Doctors without Borders as a result of the ongoing military operations in Kunduz Province.

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