By LYNNE O’DONNELL, Associated Press
KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — The international charity Doctors Without Borders said at least 19 people, including 12 local staffers, were killed when its clinic came under “sustained bombing” Saturday in the northern Afghan city of Kunduz, where Afghan officials said helicopter gunships had returned fire from Taliban fighters sheltering in the facility.
The group said the facility, which was treating more than 100 patients, came under attack at 2:08 a.m. (2138 GMT). The charity did not say whether insurgents were present, and it was not immediately clear whether the staffers were killed by the Taliban, government or U.S. forces. The group said another 30 people were still missing after the incident.
The dead included seven patients from the intensive care unit, among them three children, it said. A total of 37 people were injured, including 19 staff members, and 18 patients and caretakers. Five of the injured staff members were in critical condition, it said.
Afghan forces backed by U.S. airstrikes have been battling the Taliban street-by-street in Kunduz since Thursday, to dislodge insurgents who seized the strategic city three days earlier in their biggest foray into a major urban area since the U.S.-led invasion of 2001.
The Ministry of Defense said “terrorists” armed with light and heavy weapons had entered the hospital compound and used “the buildings and the people inside as a shield” while firing on security forces. Brig. Gen. Dawlat Waziri, the ministry’s deputy spokesman, told The Associated Press that helicopter gunships fired on the militants, causing damage to the buildings.
Interior Ministry spokesman Sediq Sediqqi said 10 to 15 “terrorists” had been hiding in the hospital at the time of the strike. “All of the terrorists were killed but we also lost doctors,” he said. He said 80 staff members at the hospital, including 15 foreigners, had been taken to safety. He did not say what sort of strike had damaged the compound.
But Doctors Without Borders said “all indications currently point to the bombing being carried out international coalition forces.” In a statement, the organization said the attack was a “grave violation of international humanitarian law” and demanded an independent investigation.
Army Col. Brian Tribus, a spokesman for American forces in Afghanistan, said a U.S. airstrike on Kunduz at 2:15 a.m. “may have resulted in collateral damage to a nearby medical facility” and that the incident was under investigation. He said it was the 12th U.S. airstrike “in the Kunduz vicinity” since Tuesday.
President Ashraf Ghani expressed his sorrow and said he and the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, U.S. Army Gen. John Campbell had “agreed to launch a joint and thorough investigation.”
Doctors Without Borders, also known by the French acronym MSF, said its trauma center “was hit several times during sustained bombing and was very badly damaged.” At the time, the hospital had 105 patients and their caretakers, and more than 80 international and Afghan staff, it said.
The U.N. human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said that if an investigation found the hospital was purposefully targeted, the incident could constitute a war crime.
Calling the incident “tragic, inexcusable and possibly even criminal,” he said in a statement, “if established as deliberate in a court of law, an airstrike on a hospital may amount to a war crime.”
The U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter said an investigation is underway. “The area has been the scene of intense fighting the last few days. U.S. forces in support of Afghan security forces were operating nearby, as were Taliban fighters,” he said in a statement. “A full investigation into the tragic incident is underway in coordination with the Afghan government.”