Monday 26 February 2018

Aid workers and patients among 19 dead as US bombs Afghan hospital

ATTACK: MSF staff cower on the floor after a sustained barrage from US forces in the northern Afghan city of Kunduz
ATTACK: MSF staff cower on the floor after a sustained barrage from US forces in the northern Afghan city of Kunduz

Andrew MacAskill

A US airstrike hit a hospital run by Medecins Sans Frontieres in the Afghan city of Kunduz yesterday, killing at least 19 people, in what the US military called possible “collateral damage” in the battle to oust Taliban insurgents.

Frantic MSF staff phoned military officials at Nato in Kabul and Washington during the attack — however, bombs continued to rain down near the medical facility for nearly an hour, one official from the aid group said.

The first bomb landed at 2.10am and MSF staff called Nato officials in Kabul at 2.19am and military officials in Washington a few minutes later. The bombing continued until 3.13am, an MSF official said.

At least 37 people were wounded and many patients and staff were still missing, it added. The US military promised to investigate the incident, which could renew concerns over the use of its air power in the conflict.

Afghan government forces backed by US air power have fought to drive the Taliban out of the northern provincial capital since the militants seized it six days ago, in the biggest victory of their near 14-year insurgency.

One resident, Khodaidad, told Reuters that Taliban had been using the hospital buildings for cover during the fighting on Friday. “I could hear heavy gunfire, explosions and airplanes throughout the night,” he added. “There were several huge explosions and it sounded like the roof was falling on me,” he added.

US forces spokesman, Col. Brian Tribus, said in a statement that the US launched an air strike at 2.15am.

“The strike may have resulted in collateral damage to a nearby medical facility ... This incident is under investigation,” he added.

At the aid group’s bombed-out hospital, one wall of a building had collapsed, scattering fragments of glass and wooden door frames, and three rooms were ablaze, said Saad Mukhtar, director of public health in Kunduz.

“Thick black smoke could be seen rising from some of the rooms... The fighting is still going on, so we had to leave.”

Almost 200 patients and employees were in the hospital, the only one in the region that can deal with major injuries, said Medecins Sans Frontieres, which raised the death toll to at least 19 by late yesterday.

“We are deeply shocked by the attack, the killing of our staff and patients and the heavy toll it has inflicted on healthcare in Kunduz,” operations director Bart Janssens said in a statement.

MSF said it gave the location of the hospital to both Afghan and US forces several times in the past few months, most recently this week, to avoid being caught in crossfire.

MSF said it had treated almost 400 patients in the 150-bed hospital since fighting broke out, most for gunshot wounds. So many patients have flooded in that the hospital had to put them in offices and on mattresses on the floor.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s spokesman said last week there would be no airstrikes inside the city because of the risk of mass civilian casualties.

Ghani’s predecessor, former President Hamid Karzai, fell out with his backers in Washington in part over the number of civilians killed by bombs earlier in the nearly 14-year-old war, America’s longest military conflict.

The US embassy in Kabul said in a statement it “mourns for the individuals and families affected by the tragic incident”.

The International Committee of the Red Cross said it was “deeply shocked” by the incident.

“This is an appalling tragedy,” said Jean-Nicolas Marti, head of the ICRC in Afghanistan. “Such attacks undermine the capacity of humanitarian organisations to assist the Afghan people at a time when they most urgently need it.”

The facility was treating more than 100 patients at the time of the attack. The charity did not say whether insurgents were present.

Afghan forces, backed by US 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 US-led invasion of 2001.

The Ministry of Defence 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, said 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 at the hospital, including 15 foreigners, had been taken to safety. He did not say what sort of strike had damaged the compound.

MSF said its trauma centre “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.

An AP video of the compound showed burning buildings with firearms — automatic rifles and at least one Russian-made machine gun — on the windowsills pointed outward.

MSF did not comment on the identities of the 30 missing people, but said all of its international staffers were alive and accounted for. It said it regularly updated its GPS coordinates with all parties to the conflict.

Adil Akbar, a doctor at the trauma centre who was on duty at the time, told The Associated Press that the operating theatre, emergency room and other parts of the hospital complex had been hit in the bombing.

“I managed to escape after the attack but I know that most of the staff and even some of the patients are missing,” he said.

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