An airstrike in northern Afghanistan has killed at least 19 people, including three children, at a hospital run by Doctors Without Borders (MSF), the charity group said Saturday.
Twelve staff members were among the dead at the hospital in Kunduz after what the medical group described as bombing that continued for more than "30 minutes after American and Afghan military officials in Kabul and Washington were first informed" of the airstrikes.
The U.S. military acknowledged it conducted a pre-dawn airstrike in the vicinity of an MSF medical facility. A spokesman for American forces in Afghanistan said a U.S. airstrike "may have resulted in collateral damage to a nearby medical facility.''
President Barack Obama on Saturday offered his "deepest condolences to the medical professionals and other civilians killed and injured in the tragic incident."
U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter offered his “thoughts and prayers to everyone affected” in a statement Saturday. “A full investigation into the tragic incident is underway in coordination with the Afghan government.”
General John F. Campbell, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, promised in a statement to “thoroughly examine the incident and determine what happened.” He said U.S. forces in the country would “continue to advise and assist” the Afghan partners as “they clear the city of Kunduz and surrounding areas of insurgents.”
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, in a statement issued in Kabul, expressed his "deep sorrow" over the killing and wounding of civilians. The statement also said Campbell, in a telephone call to Ghani, had provided explanations about the incident and offered condolences to those affected.
The International Committee of the Red Cross in Afghanistan strongly condemned the attack, saying that from its perspective, “targeting of any medical facility or personnel working in health care is unacceptable regardless of the circumstances.” A spokesperson for the committee told VOA that ICRC was “very shocked, very saddened, by this tragic news.”
Some of the strongest condemnation came from the United Nations. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and U.N. human rights chief Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein called the airstrike "inexcusable."
Zeid said, "International and Afghan military planners have an obligation to respect and protect civilians at all times, and medical facilities and personnel are the object of a special protection."
He said that "if established as deliberate in a court of law, an airstrike on a hospital may amount to a war crime."
Earlier, Doctors Without Borders said in a statement that "MSF condemns in the strongest possible terms the horrific bombing of its hospital in Kunduz full of staff and patients." It added that all parties, including Kabul and Washington, were clearly informed of the precise location (GPS coordinates) of the MSF facilities in Kunduz," including the hospital's location after fighting broke out in the city.
“MSF urgently seeks clarity on exactly what took place and how this terrible event could have happened,” the statement said. The group said that when the bombing occurred, there were about 105 patients and their caretakers in the hospital, and more than 80 foreign and local MSF staff present there.
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Afghan troops, backed by U.S. airstrikes, have been engaged in heavy fighting in Kunduz against Taliban militants who had taken over the city earlier in the week.
Authorities in Afghanistan said Friday that at least 60 people had been killed and 466 wounded in the battle between government troops and the Taliban for control of Kunduz.
Ghani announced late Thursday that Afghan security forces, after heavy fighting, had recaptured most of Kunduz three days after the provincial capital fell to the Taliban.
Clashes, however, were continuing late Friday night because officials said insurgents were still holed up in parts of it.
In a statement sent to VOA, a Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, denied presence of its fighters in the area.
A Health Ministry spokesman said Friday that the government had been sending surgical teams and medical supplies to Kunduz. But the ICRC said it was increasingly concerned about the welfare of civilians and the lack of medical supplies and personnel in the city of about 300,000 people.
In its statement issued Friday, the ICRC said it had emergency medical supplies ready to be flown from Kabul as soon as security at the city’s airport improved.
"We call on all parties to the conflict to ensure the safety of the civilian population and to facilitate the work of those trying to provide humanitarian support to the people," it quoted ICRC’s Afghanistan head, Jean-Nicolas Marti, as saying.