Afghan Hospital Attack Stemmed From U.S. Airstrike, General Says

  • U.S. says gunship was called in at request of Afghan forces
  • Group seeks probe under presumption of a `war crime'

The top U.S. general in Afghanistan confirmed that an American gunship carried out the aerial assault that destroyed a hospital during fighting in the northern city of Kunduz, killing 22 people, including 12 aid workers, and injuring dozens more patients and staff.

It was the first direct U.S. acknowledgment of responsibility for what General John Campbell called “a very serious and tragic” event. Afghan security forces under attack made the request for an airstrike to a U.S. special forces team providing training and assistance, Campbell said at a Pentagon briefing Monday, disputing earlier reports that American forces initiated the call for help.

“The United States military takes extraordinary steps to avoid harm to civilians,” said Campbell, who commands U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan, but the Taliban chose to “fight from within a heavily urbanized area,” purposely “placing civilians in harm’s way.”

Doctors Without Borders, the international aid group that ran the hospital, responded in a statement that the U.S. “description of the attack keeps changing -- from collateral damage to a tragic incident, to now attempting to pass responsibility to the Afghanistan government.”

“The reality is that the U.S. dropped those bombs,” Christopher Stokes, the group’s general director, said in the statement. “There can be no justification for this horrible attack.”

Doctors Without Borders, also known by its French name Medicins Sans Frontieres, has demanded an investigation by an independent international body “under the clear presumption that a war crime has been committed.” It withdrew its personnel from Kunduz on Sunday.

Patients Transferred

The hospital isn’t functional now and patients were transferred to other medical facilities, Tim Shenk, a spokesman for the group, said in an e-mail. It will continue its work at four other locations in Afghanistan as health needs in the country are "extremely high," he said, adding that some staff remained behind in Kunduz to help out in the city’s two remaining hospitals.

At the Pentagon briefing, Campbell said that he expects to receive a preliminary report on the strike later this week. He declined to discuss U.S. rules of engagement and whether the hospital’s GPS coordinates were provided to U.S. forces in advance, as Doctors Without Borders has asserted.

Campbell said the strike was conducted by an AC-130 gunship, which works in tandem with U.S. special operations troops. The gunship is designed to fly slowly in a horserace-track pattern over a target and pummel it with two cannons and a 25mm gatling gun, delivering precise fire.  

The area has been the scene of intense fighting in recent days, U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter has said, adding that both U.S. and Taliban forces were operating nearby. The U.S. military has supported the Afghan army by ground and air in Kunduz since the Taliban battled its way into the strategically located northern city a week ago.

Obama’s Condolences

President Barack Obama offered condolences to the victims of the “tragic incident” in a statement Saturday. With a Defense Department inquiry under way, we “await the results of that inquiry before making a definitive judgment as to the circumstances of this tragedy,” he said.

Doctors Without Borders has said the attack continued for more than 30 minutes after it alerted military officials in Kabul and Washington by phone that it was under fire.

It disputed that there was fighting nearby at the time, and reiterated the claim in an e-mailed statement on Monday.

The group was treating war wounded in the hospital, including Taliban fighters. There were more than 180 people there at the time, including 105 patients and caretakers, according to the group’s website.

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