Médecins Sans Frontières has pulled its staff out of the crisis-hit Afghan city of Kunduz after a US airstrike on its hospital, labelled a war crime by the group, with local officials claiming the clinic was being used as a Taliban base.
MSF says it a US airstrike was to blame for the bombing that killed 22 people, which Afghan officials now claim was in retaliation for fire from Taliban fighters hiding in the hospital. President Barack Obama announced on Sunday he was launching a full investigation into the circumstances.
In a robust rejection of the allegation that Taliban fighters were sheltering in the hospital grounds, the MSF general director, Christopher Stokes, said: “Not a single member of our staff reported any fighting inside the MSF hospital compound prior to the US airstrike on Saturday morning.
“The hospital was full of MSF staff, patients and their caretakers. It is 12 MSF staff members and 10 patients, including three children, who were killed in the attack.”
Stokes reinterated the main hospital building was “repeatedly and very precisely hit during each aerial raid, while the rest of the compound was left mostly untouched”.
The charity denounced the US military investigation, which is expected to be concluded in a matter of days, as an inadequate response, and said an independent international investigation must take place.
“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,” Stokes said. “Relying only on an internal investigation by a party to the conflict would be wholly insufficient.”
The charity said all critical patients had been referred to other health facilities and no MSF staff are now working in the hospital, with some volunteering to work at local alternative clinics where some of the wounded had been taken.
Nato in Afghanistan said it had directed a multi-national investigation and anticipated a report in the coming days, in addition to the formal US military investigation. A spokeswoman said the US strike at 2.15am took place as insurgents were “directly firing upon US service members advising and assisting Afghan security forces in the city of Kunduz … the strike was conducted in the vicinity of a Doctors Without Borders medical facility.”
Obama said he would wait for the results of the US defence department inquiry before making a definitive judgment but expected “a full accounting of the facts and circumstances”.
“The hospital campus was 100% used by the Taliban,” Hamdullah Danishi, the acting governor of Kunduz, had told the Washington Post earlier. “The hospital has a vast garden, and the Taliban were there. We tolerated their firing for some time.”
Taliban forces briefly seized control of the northern city after a furious battle, their most significant military success since the 2001 US invasion, but have since withdrawn after a heavy counterattack by Afghan government forces.
On Sunday afternoon, gun battles continued in three outer districts of the town. Danishi told reporters he believed the Taliban forces had been bolstered by foreign recruits to the front lines, many from central Asian countries.
Saad Mukhar, the Kunduz provincial public health director, said the city was facing “a serious, drastic shortage of medicine” in an interview with AFP. “I’m afraid that if this situation continues, we will not be able to help our patients.”