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Pentagon Report on MSF Hospital Bombing Will Be Vetted

  • Reuters

The burned-out Doctors Without Borders hospital compound in the east of Kunduz, Afghanistan, Oct 4, 2015.

The burned-out Doctors Without Borders hospital compound in the east of Kunduz, Afghanistan, Oct 4, 2015.

The commander of U.S. troops in Afghanistan will vet the findings of an investigation the military is conducting into last month's bombing of a hospital
by U.S. forces, and the Defense Department will redact the report, raising the possibility that some details of the attack will remain secret.

The Pentagon is investigating why a U.S. Air Force gunship destroyed a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, on Oct. 3. The attack killed 30 and injured at least 37 at the facility.

After the attack, Gen. John F. Campbell, the overall commander for U.S. Forces in Afghanistan, gave conflicting accounts of what happened. Campbell later said the hospital was "mistakenly struck."

The Defense Department has declined to give an explanation pending results of the investigation.

Doctors Without Borders and some Democratic members of Congress called for an independent inquiry into the attack. Days after the incident, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter promised a "full and transparent investigation."

To lead the probe, Campbell appointed two-star Army Gen. William Hickman. Campbell said he chose Hickman because the general reports to a different command from Campbell's and therefore would be able to conduct an independent inquiry.

Campbell will get to vet the findings of the investigation, however. In a statement to Reuters, the Defense Department said the report would have to be approved by Campbell before it is sent for redaction to officials at the Florida headquarters of the U.S. Central Command.

The version of the report for public release will eliminate information the military considers classified or confidential, the statement said.

The Pentagon wouldn't say when it expects to finish the investigation. On Oct. 8, Campbell said a preliminary report would be made public within a month, but the Pentagon has since said there is no target date for releasing any findings.

The bombing outraged Doctors Without Borders, commonly known as MSF, the initials of the volunteer organization's name in French, Medecins sans Frontieres.

Joanne Liu, president of MSF, called the attack a "war crime" in an Oct. 6 statement. The organization demanded an independent investigation by an international body, the Geneva-based International Humanitarian Fact-Finding Commission.

In a statement issued after Reuters told MSF of the Pentagon's plans for handling the investigation, the organization said: "We reiterate our call for the U.S. to consent to an independent investigation."

Congressman John Garamendi, a Democrat from California, and three other House Democrats have called on Carter to let the Defense Department's inspector general participate in the investigation.

The inspector general by law is not part of the Defense Department, but an independent body that investigates problems in the department. The inspector general is bound by the same rules as the Pentagon itself in disclosing classified information, however.

In the days before the attack, according to MSF official Jonathan Whittall, U.S. officials were in contact with the hospital and asked if armed Taliban fighters had taken it over. MSF told the U.S. that the patients included wounded fighters
from both the Afghan army and the Taliban but that there were no armed combatants in the hospital compound.

MSF has said that in the months before the attack, it had given the hospital's GPS coordinates to U.S. and NATO officials.

The attack, by an Air Force AC130 gunship, lasted approximately one hour. MSF says its personnel at the hospital contacted U.S. and Afghan forces to call off the attack, but the assault continued anyway.

The AC130, a converted cargo plane, typically flies low and circles its target repeatedly, firing heavy guns and other munitions from the sides of the aircraft, according to information on Air Force web sites.

Whittall, the MSF official, said it would have been apparent from the air that the building was a hospital. Whitall said the weather was clear the night of the attack, and two large MSF flags, each seven feet by 10 feet (three meters by two meters), were laid out on the hospital's well-lit roof.

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