The United States is facing international condemnation after its airstrikes devastated a hospital in Afghanistan. The attack, an effort to eject Taliban Islamists from the city of Kunduz, killed at least 19 people at the hospital run by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), including 12 staff and three children. It has also emerged that officials in Washington and Kabul had been made aware of the hospital’s location, leading to claims by human rights groups that the strikes could amount to a war crime. A US forces spokesman confirmed the strikes “may have resulted in collateral damage”, although there was no immediate public apology.
More than 100 patients and 80 staff members were at the clinic when it became engulfed in flames in the early hours of 3 October. It was reported that, on top of the fatalities, 40 people were seriously hurt including 19 MSF staff, some of whom were taken to a hospital two hours away in Puli Khumri.
Many people remain unaccounted for and the death toll is expected to rise. The attack was deplored by MSF, which said it had repeatedly told authorities of the hospital’s GPS location.
The airstrikes continued for more than 30 minutes even though military officials in Washington and Nato officials in Kabul had again been informed of the hospital’s location after staff became aware of the attacks.
Colonel Brian Tribus, speaking for the US forces, said: “The strike may have resulted in collateral damage to a nearby medical facility. This incident is under investigation.” Ash Carter, US Defence Secretary, confirmed the “tragic incident” was being investigated with the Afghan government.
Ashraf Ghani, President of Afghanistan, said in a statement the commander of Nato’s Resolute Support mission had “explained and [apologised] for the attack”. The Kabul mission said it was unaware of the apology.
Meinie Nicolai, MSF’s president, called the attack “abhorrent” and a “grave violation of international humanitarian law”. She said: “We demand total transparency from coalition forces. We cannot accept this horrific loss of life will simply be dismissed as ‘collateral damage’.”
Kunduz was thrown into turmoil last week when it became the first city to be commandeered by the Taliban in 14 years. Civilians have become trapped in a battleground between Taliban and government troops, with claims that some were raped and murdered.
A Taliban spokesman said none of its fighters were present at the hospital during the bombing, though the Afghan interior ministry said 10 to 15 “terrorists” had been hiding in the hospital and were killed.
Nicholas Haysom, the UN special representative in Afghanistan, said: “Hospitals accommodating patients and medical personnel may never be the object of attack, and international humanitarian law also prohibits the use of medical facilities for military purposes.”
Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the UN human rights chief, said the event needed to be independently investigated and the results publicised, adding that a deliberate airstrike on a hospital could be a war crime. The trauma centre was caring for almost 400 people wounded as a result of the violence that followed the insurgent attacks on 28 September.
Speaking to The Independent on Sunday, Horia Mosadiq, Amnesty International’s Afghanistan researcher, said: “Amnesty [believes] the deliberate attack of civilian and civilian targets, hospitals and medical facilities … is in violation of international humanitarian law and [a] deliberate attack may amount to war crimes. Attacking medical facilities, and especially a surgical hospital, could have a grave human cost because this hospital was dealing with a countless number of people, especially in the past few days when the war started in Kunduz.”
Ms Mosadiq added: “We are calling on the Afghan government and others to conduct an independent investigation into this incident and to … bring [those] responsible to justice.”
Jean-Nicolas Marti, head of the International Committee of the Red Cross delegation in Afghanistan, said: “This is an appalling tragedy. Such attacks against health workers and facilities undermine the capacity of humanitarian [organisations] to assist the Afghan people at a time when they most urgently need it.”
In a statement on its Facebook page, the US embassy in Kabul said it mourned “for the individuals and families affected by the tragic incident at the Doctors without Borders hospital, and for all those suffering from the violence in Kunduz”.
It added: “Doctors without Borders performs heroic work throughout the world, including in Afghanistan, and our thoughts and prayers are with their team at this difficult moment. We remain deeply concerned about the ongoing violence in Kunduz and the difficult humanitarian situation faced by its residents.”
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