At Least 22 Killed in Apparent US Airstrike on Doctors Without Borders Hospital in Afghanistan
At least 22 civilians were killed in an apparent US airstrike on a hospital run by the international charity group Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in Kunduz, Afghanistan.
The sustained aerial attack began at around 2:00 a.m. on Saturday. The hospital, which has been described as the only medical facility in the region capable of treating major injuries, had been busy dealing with people wounded in recent fighting between Afghan government and Taliban forces for control of the northern provincial capital.
Reuters reports the dead include 12 staff members and 10 patients, including three children. Some patients were burned to death in their beds At least 37 others were wounded. MSF, known in English as Doctors Without Borders, said the bombardment continued for half an hour after it informed US and Afghan officials that the hospital was under attack.
The US military has admitted that an airstrike targeting Taliban militants, who in recent days captured large portions of the northern city of 300,000 residents, may have hit the charity hospital.
“The strike may have resulted in collateral damage to a nearby medical facility. This incident is under investigation,” Col Brian Tribus, a spokesman for US forces in Afghanistan, told reporters.
President Barack Obama offered his “deepest condolences” to the the people affected by what he called a “tragic incident.”
“The Department of Defense has launched a full investigation, and we will await the results of that inquiry before making a definitive judgement as to the circumstances of this tragedy,” Obama said in a statement.
United Nations High Commissioner Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said that “if established as deliberate in a court of law, an air strike on a hospital may amount to a war crime.”
“This event is utterly tragic, inexcusable and possibly even criminal,” Zeid said in a statement.
MSF demanded an independent probe of the attack.
“Under the clear presumption that a war crime has been committed, MSF demands that a full and transparent investigation into the event be conducted by an independent international body,” MSF General Director Christopher Stokes said in a statement.
“Relying only on an internal investigation by a party to the conflict would be wholly insufficient,” the statement added.
Afghan Defense Ministry officials accused Taliban militants of firing on US and Afghan forces from the hospital and of using staff and patients as human shields. MSF vehemently denied the allegations.
“The gates of the hospital compound were closed all night so no one that is not staff, a patient or a caretaker was inside the hospital when the bombing happened,” MSF said in a statement on Sunday. “In any case, bombing a fully functioning hospital can never be justified.”
The airstrike reduced a large part of the hospital to smoldering rubble, leaving survivors—there were 105 patients and more than 80 Afghan and international MSF staff present at the time of the attack—reeling with shock.
MSF nurse Lajos Zoltan Jecs was jolted from his sleep when the first bombs struck the hospital, an experience he called absolutely terrifying.”
“We tried to take a look into one of the burning buildings. I cannot describe what was inside,” Jecs told the Independent. “There are no words for how terrible it was. In the Intensive Care Unit six patients were burning in their beds.”
Jecs described the slain MSF staff as “people who had been working hard for months, non-stop for the past week.”
“They had not gone home, they had not seen their families, they had just been working in the hospital to help people… and now they are dead,” he continued. “These people are friends, close friends. I have no words to express this. It is unspeakable.”
“I was inside the hospital, working well into the night with other doctors to treat a growing number of patients with war injuries,” Musadeq, an Afghan doctor, told Agence France-Presse. “Suddenly thunderous explosions struck and it felt like the sky was falling down.”
“I can’t believe all the faithful doctors who worked night and day to save people’s live are now gone,” added Musadeq.
“The bombs hit and then we heard the plane circle round,” Heman Nagarathnam, MSF’s head of programs in northern Afghanistan, told AFP. “There was a pause, and then more bombs hit. This happened again and again. 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.”
MSF said the ferocious attack continued for 30 minutes after it informed US and Afghan officials about the strike.
“All parties to the conflict, including in Kabul and Washington, were clearly informed of the precise location (GPS coordinates) of the MSF facilities,” the charity said in a statement.
The airstrike occurred as Afghan forces backed by American warplanes fought to drive the resurgent Taliban from Kunduz. Taliban forces gained control of the city nearly a week ago, the Islamist militant group’s greatest victory in the 14-year war that began after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.
At least 92,000 people have been killed in the Afghanistan war since 2001, including more than 26,000 civilians. The vast majority of these deaths have been caused by Taliban forces.
The apparent US airstrike came just a day after a leading US military official warned Russia that civilian casualties caused by its aerial bombardment of anti-government rebels in Syria could create more terrorists.
“We believe if you inadvertently kill innocent men, women and children, then there’s a backlash from that,” Gen. Bob Otto, the Air Force’s deputy chief of staff for intelligence, told Time. “We might kill three and create 10 terrorists. It really goes back to the question of are we killing more than were making?”
It is estimated that as many as 1.3 million people have died in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan since the US initiated its war against terrorism in October 2001.