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US Commander Admits No Direct Threat to Troops Before Afghan Hospital Bombing that Killed 22 Civilians

MSF staff reeling after a US airstrike destroyed large portions of a hospital run by the charity in Kunduz, Afghanistan. (MSF/AFP photo)

Surviving MSF staff reeling after a US airstrike destroyed large portions of a hospital run by the charity in Kunduz, Afghanistan. (MSF/AFP photo)

The commander of United States forces in Afghanistan has admitted that the military incorrectly reported that its troops were under direct threat when an American warplane attacked a charity hospital in Kunduz, killing at least 22 innocent civilians.

The New York Times reports Gen. John F. Campbell said at a Monday news conference that Afghan forces requested Saturday’s airstrike on the Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF or, in English, Doctors Without Borders) hospital in the northern provincial capital. Campbell said that Afghan government forces had come under fire near the hospital.

“An airstrike was then called to eliminate the Taliban threat and several civilians were accidentally struck,” said Campbell. “This is different from the initial reports which indicated that US forces were threatened and that the airstrike was called on their behalf. The Afghans asked for air support from a Special Forces team that we have on the ground.”

Reuters reported the dead included 12 staff members and 10 patients, three of them children. Some patients who were unable to flee were burned to death in their beds. In addition to those killed, at least 37 other people were wounded in the prolonged attack, which lasted more than an hour.

“There are no words for how terrible it was,” MSF nurse and attack survivor Lajos Zoltan Jecs told the Independent. “In the intensive care unit, six patients were burning in their beds.”

Speaking of the MSF staff who perished in the airstrike, Jecs said that “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.”

“These people are friends, close friends,” the nurse added. “I have no words to express this. It is unspeakable.”

MSF had previously notified all parties of the hospital’s location. As staff realized what was happening, they frantically contacted US and Afghan officials but the AC-130 gunship’s onslaught continued for another 30 minutes.

US military officials referred to the victims as “collateral damage” and promised a thorough investigation.

MSF responded angrily to American and Afghan statements about the attack. Director Chris Stokes said the US military’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 the US dropped those bombs,” Stokes wrote in a statement. “The US hit a huge hospital full of wounded patients and MSF staff. The US military remains responsible for the targets it hits, even though it is part of a coalition. There can be no justification for this horrible attack. With such constant discrepancies in the US and Afghan accounts of what happened, the need for a full transparent independent investigation is ever more critical.”

MSF also called Afghan claims that Taliban militants used the hospital as a base “spurious.”

“MSF is disgusted by the recent statements coming from some Afghanistan government authorities justifying the attack on its hospital in Kunduz,” the charity said in a statement, which continued:

These statements imply that Afghan and US forces working together decided to raze to the ground a fully functioning hospital with more than 180 staff and patients inside because they claim that members of the Taliban were present. This amounts to an admission of a war crime. This utterly contradicts the initial attempts of the US government to minimize the attack as ‘collateral damage.’

There can be no justification for this abhorrent attack on our hospital that resulted in the deaths of MSF staff as they worked and patients as they lay in their beds. MSF reiterates its demand for a full transparent and independent international investigation.

The top United Nations human rights official also said the strike may be a war crime.

“If established as deliberate in a court of law, an airstrike on a hospital may amount to a war crime,” UN High Commissioner Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein asserted in a statement. “This event is utterly tragic, inexcusable and possibly even criminal.”

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.

MSF said it would be leaving Kunduz after the strike on the hospital, which has been described as the only medical facility in the province capable of treating serious injuries.

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