Afghan hos­pi­tal hit; U.S. blamed

Of­fi­cials: At­tack aimed at in­sur­gents in Kun­duz

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY TIM CRAIG

kabul— An airstrike ap­par­ently car­ried out by U.S. forces heav­ily dam­aged a char­i­ta­ble hos­pi­tal in north­ern Afghanistan on Satur­day, killing at least 19 peo­ple — three of them re­port­edly chil­dren — in an in­ci­dent that a se­nior U.N. of­fi­cial equated to a war crime.

The airstrike oc­curred be­fore dawn when a Doc­tors With­out Borders trauma cen­ter in wartorn Kun­duz was struck while doc­tors were treat­ing dozens of pa­tients. Hos­pi­tal of­fi­cials said they were as­saulted from the air for 30 to 45 min­utes, re­sult­ing in a large fire that burned some pa­tients to death in their beds. Among those killed were 12 of the char­ity group’s staff mem­bers, the group said.

“This at­tack is ab­hor­rent and a grave vi­o­la­tion of in­ter­na­tional hu­man­i­tar­ian law,” said Meinie Ni­co­lai, the group’s pres­i­dent.

While the char­ity’s work­ers re­ported waves of bombs hit­ting their fa­cil­ity, the U.S.-led mil­i­tary coali­tion in Kabul is­sued a state­ment con­firm­ing one Amer­i­can airstrike that may have caused “col­lat­eral dam­age” to a “med­i­cal fa­cil­ity.” Author­i­ties said it was launched against “in­sur­gents whowere di­rectly fir­ing upon U.S. ser­vice­mem­bers” who had trav­eled to Kun­duz to ad­vise Afghan se­cu­rity forces.

The hos­pi­tal dis­as­ter came at the end of a week in which U. S. forces had to step up their in­volve­ment in Afghanistan’s

chaotic 14- year war, de­spite Pres­i­dent Obama’s pledge to re­duce the U. S. role and re­move most Amer­i­can troops from the coun­try by the end of 2016.

U.S. fighter jets and Spe­cial Oper­a­tions troops were dis­patched to the area af­ter Tal­iban mil­i­tants on Mon­day over­ran Kun­duz, Afghanistan’s sixth­largest city.

It was un­clear how close Tal­iban fight­ers may have been to the hos­pi­tal Satur­day or whether the U.S. mil­i­tary didn’t re­al­ize the build­ing was a hos­pi­tal. Afghan se­cu­rity of­fi­cials said Tal­iban fight­ers had been pour­ing into the fa­cil­ity in re­cent days seek­ing treat­ment for gun­shot wounds and other in­juries.

The char­ity and other in­ter­na­tional or­ga­ni­za­tions re­acted with out­rage, and the hos­pi­tal’s man­age­ment said it had re­peat­edly in­formed the U.S.-led coali­tion of the fa­cil­ity’s pre­cise GPS co­or­di­nates over the past few months. The lo­ca­tion of the hos­pi­tal was last con­veyed to the in­ter­na­tional coali­tion three days be­fore the airstrike, of­fi­cials added.

In­de­pen­dent probe sought

In a state­ment, the United Na­tions’ top hu­man rights of­fi­cial called for an in­de­pen­dent, public in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

“This event is ut­terly tragic, in­ex­cus­able and, pos­si­bly, even crim­i­nal,” said Zeid Ra’ad al-Hus­sein, the U.N. high com­mis­sioner for hu­man rights, adding that “if es­tab­lished as de­lib­er­ate in a court of law, an airstrike on a hos­pi­tal may amount to a war crime.”

Jason Cone, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Doc­tors With­out Borders in the United States, said hos­pi­tal of­fi­cials in Kun­duz im­me­di­ately reached out to U.S. mil­i­tary of­fi­cials when the airstrike oc­curred.

“The bomb­ing con­tin­ued for more than 30 min­utes af­ter Amer­i­can and Afghan mil­i­tary of­fi­cials in Kabul and Washington were first in­formed,” the or­ga­ni­za­tion said in a state­ment.

A U.S. mil­i­tary of­fi­cial, speak­ing on the con­di­tion of anonymity talk freely, said the strike ap­pears to have been car­ried out by an AC-130 gun­ship, a heav­ily armed war­plane.

Late Satur­day, Obama ex­tended his con­do­lences to those killed and in­jured and said in a state­ment that “the Depart­ment of De­fense has launched a full in­ves­ti­ga­tion, and we will await the re­sults of that in­quiry be­fore mak­ing a de­fin­i­tive judg­ment as to the cir­cum­stances of this tragedy.”

‘The only ad­vanced hos­pi­tal’

Afghan Pres­i­dent Ashraf Ghani said Army Gen. John F. Camp­bell, com­man­der of the U.S.-led coali­tion forces in Afghanistan, called him Satur­day to of­fer con­do­lences. But U.S. De­fense Sec­re­tary Ash­ton B. Carter was cau­tious in a state­ment is­sued Satur­day, say­ing that “a full in­ves­ti­ga­tion” was un­der­way and that he was ex­tend­ing prayers to those af­fected. “We are still try­ing to de­ter­mine ex­actly what hap­pened,” his state­ment said.

In all, at least 12 Doc­tors With­out Borders staff mem­bers were killed along with seven pa­tients, three of them chil­dren, the group said. At least 37 other peo­ple were se­ri­ously in­jured, in­clud­ing 19 staff mem­bers. The hos­pi­tal was “par­tially de­stroyed” in the at­tack, which be­gan shortly af­ter 2 a.m., the group said.

“The bombs hit, and then we heard the plane cir­cle round,” said He­man Na­garath­nam, who is the char­ity’s head of pro­grams in north­ern Afghanistan. “There was a pause, and then more bombs hit. This hap­pened again and again. When I made it out from the of­fice, the main hos­pi­tal build­ing was en­gulfed in flames.”

Those who could, Na­garath-nam said, hid in the hos­pi­tal’s bunker. Med­i­cal staff and crit­i­cally ill pa­tients, how­ever, were left ex­posed to the en­su­ing fire.

A nurse work­ing at the hos­pi­tal, La­jos Zoltan Jecs, said that when she and other staff mem­bers emerged from a safe room af­ter the at­tack, they looked into the in­ten­sive care unit, which was on fire.

“Six pa­tients were burn­ing in their beds,” she said in a state­ment is­sued by Doc­tors With­out Borders. “There are no words for how ter­ri­ble it was,” she said.

Mirza Lagh­mani, a lo­cal res­i­dent, said Afghan sol­diers were bat­tling mil­i­tants near the hos­pi­tal when Satur­day’s airstrike took place.

“The Tal­iban are tak­ing and evac­u­at­ing their wounded fight­ers to the hos­pi­tal for treat­ment,” said Lagh­mani, who said the mil­i­tant group still con­trols most of the city. “It was the only ad­vanced hos­pi­tal” in the area.

Ab­dul Qa­har Aram, spokes to for the Afghan army’s 209th Corps in north­ern Afghanistan, on Satur­day said Tal­iban fight­ers are now hid­ing in “peo­ple’s houses, mosques and hos­pi­tals us­ing civil­ians as hu­man shields.”

Sultan Arab, a lo­cal po­lice com­man­der in Kun­duz, said the hos­pi­tal came un­der an airstrike “be­cause the Tal­iban had shifted their com­mand cen­ter in­side the hos­pi­tal.”

Doc­tors With­out Borders, which op­er­ates in 20 coun­tries and was hon­ored with the No­bel Peace Prize in 1999, prides it­self on treat­ing any pa­tient in need of as­sis­tance.

Through­out the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. mil­i­tary has faced crit­i­cism over civil­ian ca­su­al­ties and “friendly fire” inci dents. For­mer Afghan pres­i­dent Hamid Karzai re­peat­edly ac­cused the U.S. mil­i­tary of be­ing reck­less in how it car­ried out airstrikes. But af­ter Ghani re­placed Karzai last year, re­la­tions be­tween the Afghan gov­ern­ment and coali­tion of­fi­cials im­proved dra­mat­i­cally.

Ghani, who is hop­ing that Obama re­thinks his timetable for re­mov­ing troops from Afghanistan, did not di­rectly crit­i­cize the United States for the tragedy.

The U.S. mil­i­tary of­fi­cial said Spe­cial Forces sol­diers were on the ground ad­vis­ing Afghan forces when they de­tected in­com­ing fire from Tal­iban fight­ers. They re­ceived au­tho­riza­tion to re­turn fire at an area that was ap­par­ently close to the hos­pi­tal, the of­fi­cial said.

The AC-130 gun­ship, com­monly known as the Spec­tre, can stay above a tar­get for long amounts of time and car­ries a num­ber of weapons.

On Satur­day, as the main hos­pi­tal build­ing was still smol­der­ing, Doc­tors With­out Borders cir­cu­lated pho­to­graphs show­ing the af­ter­math of the bomb­ing. In one photo, a health-care worker in blood-stained scrubs hud­dled in a cor­ner with another man.

Later in the day, hos­pi­tal of­fi­cials be­gan evac­u­at­ing pa­tients to another fa­cil­ity about two hours’ drive away, a risky un­der­tak­ing be­cause fierce fight­ing con­tin­ues across swaths of north­east­ern Afghanistan.

There are mount­ing con­cerns that an al­ready grim hu­man­i­tar­ian sit­u­a­tion in Kun­duz will worsen in the com­ing days.

“The dead bod­ies are ly­ing on the streets, both the Tal­iban and also civil­ians, and no one is al­lowed to pick up the bod­ies,” said Lagh­mani, the lo­cal res­i­dent.

There have been sev­eral in­ci­dents in the past in which U.S. airstrikes in­ad­ver­tently caused large num­bers of civil­ian ca­su­al­ties.

DOC­TORS WITH­OUT BORDERS VIA AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Two staff mem­bers are among those in­jured. At least 12 staff mem­bers were killed, as were seven pa­tients, three of them chil­dren, and at least 37 peo­ple were se­ri­ously in­jured, the char­ity group said.

Comments

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.