THE international charity Doctors Without Borders said at least 16 people including nine medics were killed in its clinic in the northern Afghan city of Kunduz, after helicopter gunships returned fire from Taleban fighters sheltering there.
The clinic, at which more than 100 patients were being treated, came under attack at 2:10am. It was not immediately clear whether the staffers were killed by the Taleban or by Afghan government or US forces. Another 30 people were still missing after the incident.
The dead included seven patients from the intensive care unit, among them three children, the charity said. A further 37 people were injured, including 19 staff, and 18 patients and caretakers. Five of the injured staff were in critical condition.
Afghan forces backed by US airstrikes have been battling the Taleban 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 Afghan Ministry of Defence said armed “terrorists” entered the hospital compound and used “the buildings and the people inside as a shield” while firing on security forces.
Brigadier General Dawlat Waziri, the ministry’s deputy spokesman, said that helicopter gunships fired on the militants, causing damage to the buildings.
Afghan Interior Ministry spokesman Sediq Sediqqi said ten to 15 “terrorists” had been hiding in the hospital at the time. “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.
Army Colonel Brian Tribus, a spokesman for American forces in Afghanistan, said a US airstrike on Kunduz at 2:15am “may have resulted in collateral damage to a nearby medical facility” and that the incident was under investigation. He said it was the 12th US airstrike “in the Kunduz vicinity” since Tuesday.
Doctors Without Borders, also known by the French acronym 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.
The UN human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said that if an investigation found that 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 US Secretary of Defence Ash Carter said an investigation is underway. “The area has been the scene of intense fighting the last few days. US forces in support of Afghan security forces were operating nearby, as were Taleban fighters,” he said in a statement. “A full investigation into the tragic incident is underway in coordination with the Afghan government.”
Video of the compound showed burning buildings with firearms – automatic rifles and at least one Russian-made machine gun – on the windowsills pointed outward.
Doctors Without Borders 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.
Taleban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid had earlier issued a statement saying there were no Taleban fighters in the hospital at the time of the bombing. He also accused Afghanistan’s intelligence service of deliberately directing airstrikes on the hospital.
Adil Akbar, a doctor at the trauma centre who was on duty at the time, said that the operating theatre and emergency room had both been hit in the bombing.
“Most of the staff and even some of the patients are missing,” he said.