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US Commander Apologizes for Killing 42 in Kunduz, Afghanistan Hospital Bombing

MSF hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan after the US air strike that killed 42 people and wounded dozens more on October 3, 2015. (Photo: MSF)

MSF hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan after the US air strike that killed 42 people and wounded dozens more on October 3, 2015. (Photo: MSF)

The new commander of US and NATO military forces in Afghanistan apologized on Tuesday to victims of an October 2015 aerial attack on a charity hospital that killed 42 patients and staff and wounded dozens more.

The New York Times reports Gen. John W. Nicholson Jr. and his wife, security analyst Norine MacDonald, traveled to Kunduz in northeastern Afghanistan, where they met with local officials and relatives of victims of the October 3 attack on a Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF, or Doctors Without Borders) hospital. It was the only hospital in the region capable of treating serious injuries.

“As commander, I wanted to come to Kunduz personally and stand before the families and the people of Kunduz to deeply apologize for the events which destroyed the hospital and caused the deaths of staff, patients and family members,” said Nicholson. “I grieve with you for your loss and suffering, and humbly and respectfully ask for your forgiveness.”

President Barack Obama previously apologized to MSF for the strike and promised a “transparent, thorough and objective accounting of the facts and circumstances of the incident.”

Gen. John F. Campbell, former commander of US forces in Afghanistan, said after the attack that it had been ordered to “eliminate” a Taliban threat and that “several civilians were accidentally struck.” The military first falsely reported that US troops faced a direct threat warranting the air strike, but Campbell later admitted there was no immediate danger to American personnel. The US altered its version of events four times in as many days in the wake of the bombing.

A US investigation concluded the bombing, which occurred as Afghan forces backed by American warplanes fought to drive the resurgent Taliban from Kunduz, was a “tragic accident” largely attributable to human error. However, a MSF report said the strike appeared to be a “war crime” and that the US conducted the attack “with a purpose to kill and destroy.” The top United Nations human rights official also said the attack could 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 said at the time. “This event is utterly tragic, inexcusable and possibly even criminal.”

MSF had previously notified all warring parties of the hospital’s GPS coordinates. As staff there realized they were under US attack, they frantically contacted American and Afghan officials but it took US commanders 17 minutes to react after receiving the warning. The MSF report describes patients burning in their beds, medical staff who were decapitated and lost limbs and staff members being shot from the air while they fled the burning building.

“Many staff describe seeing people being shot, most likely from the plane, as people tried to flee the main hospital building that was being hit with each airstrike,” the report said. “Some accounts mention shooting that appears to follow the movement of people on the run. [MSF] doctors and other medical staff were shot while running to reach safety in a different part of the compound.”

“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.”

Relatives of those killed in the bombing and survivors of the attack expressed their anger to Afghan officials who accepted Gen. Nicholson’s apology on their behalf. Zabiullah Niazi, an operating room nurse at the hospital who lost an eye, a finger and the use of one of his hands, asked the New York Times why the apology took so long.

“They hit us six months ago and are apologizing now?” he asked. “The head of the provincial council and other officials who said we accept the apology, they wouldn’t have said it if they had lost their own son and eaten ashes, as we did.”

Others wondered if anyone would be held accountable for the attack. While the US military disciplined more than a dozen troops over the incident, no personnel face criminal charges.

The MSF hospital in Kunduz was shut down after the bombing, depriving hundreds of thousands of Afghans access to medical care at what was the only specialized trauma hospital in northeastern Afghanistan.

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. It is estimated that as many as 1.3 million people have died in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan since the US launched its war on terrorism in October 2001 in response to the previous month’s al-Qaeda attacks on New York and Washington, DC.

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