KABUL, Oct 5, (Agencies): Pressure mounted on Washington Monday to come clean over the apparent US airstrike on an Afghan hospital that killed 22, an incident the Pentagon chief said was “confused and complicated” but which medical charity MSF branded a war crime. Doctors Without Borders (MSF) said Sunday it has closed the trauma centre, seen as a lifeline in a war-battered region with scant medical care, and demanded an independent probe into Saturday’s devastating air raid.
President Barack Obama has promised a full investigation but the international outrage over the deadly incident has piled pressure on Washington for a more transparent probe. “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. Stokes also hit out at claims by Afghan officials that insurgents were using the hospital as a position to target Afghan forces and civilians. “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 Taleban were present,” he said. “This amounts to an admission of a war crime. This utterly contradicts the initial attempts of the US government to minimise the attack as ‘collateral damage’.” The group said Afghan and coalition troops were fully aware of the exact location of the hospital, having been given GPS coordinates of the facility which had been providing care for four years. NATO said US forces carried out the bombardment in the “vicinity” of the hospital to protect American special forces on the ground who came under enemy fire, but MSF said the surrounding area was largely unscathed.
The charity said that despite frantic calls to military officials in Kabul and Washington, the main building housing the intensive care unit and emergency rooms was “repeatedly, very precisely” hit almost every 15 minutes for more than an hour. US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter expressed sadness over the “tragic loss of life” but warned that the investigation will not be swift. “The situation there is confused and complicated so it may take some time to get the facts, but we will get the facts, but we will be full and transparent about sharing them,” he told reporters on a flight to Madrid at the start of a European tour. However MSF’s Stokes stressed the need for an independent probe, saying “an internal investigation by a party to the conflict would be wholly insufficient”. The air raid came five days after Taleban fighters seized control of the strategic northern city of Kunduz, in their most spectacular victory since being toppled from power by a US-led coalition in 2001.
Afghan forces, backed up by their NATO allies, claim to have wrestled back control of the city. At least 60 people are known to have died and 400 to have been wounded in the past week’s fighting. Saturday’s raid left the hospital’s main building completely gutted. Some of the bodies of those trapped inside were charred beyond recognition. The dead included 12 MSF staff and 10 patients, among them three children. MSF’s withdrawal from Kunduz comes as the region grapples with a humanitarian crisis, with food and medicine shortages affecting thousands of civilians caught in the crossfire between government forces and insurgents.
The hospital was the only medical facility in the whole northeastern region of Afghanistan that can deal with major war injuries. Its closure, even temporarily, could have a devastating impact on local civilians. Kate Stegeman, a spokeswoman for the charity, told AFP she could not confirm whether the trauma centre will reopen. The incident has renewed concerns about the use of US air strikes in Afghanistan, a deeply contentious issue in the 14-year campaign against Taleban insurgents.
UN rights chief Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein has also called for a full and transparent probe, noting: “An air strike on a hospital may amount to a war crime.” “This event is utterly tragic, inexcusable and possibly even criminal,” he said on Saturday. Human Rights Watch also said the strike raises “grave concerns” about whether US forces took sufficient precautions to identify and avoid striking the facility. Meanwhile, police and residents said Afghan government forces had regained control of most of the besieged city of Kunduz on Monday, and some shops in the centre of the provincial capital opened for the first time since it fell to Taleban fighters a week ago. Residents said it was the first time in eight days that they had not heard gun battles and were able to leave their homes to buy food and take stock of the damage done.