The U.S. military on Saturday acknowledged it may have bombed a hospital run by medical aid group Medecins Sans Frontieres in the Afghan city of Kunduz in an air strike that killed at least nine people and wounded 37.
The incident could renew concerns about the use of U.S. air power in Afghanistan, a controversial issue in America’s longest war. Former President Hamid Karzai fell out with his backers in Washington over the number of civilians killed by bombs.
Fighting has raged around the northern provincial capital of Kunduz as government forces backed by American air power seek to drive out Taliban militants who seized the city six days ago in the biggest victory of their nearly 14-year insurgency.
Despite government claims to have taken control of the area, a bitter contest with the Taliban continues. Afghan security forces fought their way into Kunduz three days ago, but battles continue in many places, with Taliban hiding in people’s homes.
U.S. forces launched an air strike at 2.15 a.m. (1745 ET), the spokesman, Col. Brian Tribus, said in a statement. “The strike may have resulted in collateral damage to a nearby medical facility,” he added. “This incident is under investigation.”
At the aid group’s bombed-out hospital, one wall of a building had collapsed, scattering fragments of glass and wooden door frames, and three rooms were ablaze, said Saad Mukhtar, director of public health in Kunduz.
“Thick black smoke could be seen rising from some of the rooms,” Mukhtar said after a visit to the hospital. “The fighting is still going on, so we had to leave.”
Many patients and staff remain missing after the attack that happened at a time when almost 200 patients and employees were in the hospital, the only one in the region that can deal with major injuries, Medecins Sans Frontieres said.
“We are deeply shocked by the attack, the killing of our staff and patients and the heavy toll it has inflicted on healthcare in Kunduz,” the aid group’s operations director, Bart Janssens, said in a statement.
HOSPITAL COORDINATES GIVEN TO BOTH SIDES
MSF said it gave the location of the hospital to both sides several times in the past few months, as well as this week, to avoid being caught in crossfire. It said the bombing continued for 30 minutes after Afghan and U.S. military officials were informed.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said U.S. air strikes targeted the hospital, killing killed patients, doctors and nurses. No militant fighter was a patient, the group said. The U.S. military has unleashed twelve air strikes this week in support of government forces in the city. Most airstrikes hit targets on the city’s outskirts and the overnight strike was only the second in a central area, the military said.
The hospital was on the frontline of the increasingly bloody conflict. On Friday, Taliban fighters hiding behind the walls of the hospital were firing at government forces, said Khodaidad, a Kunduz resident who lives near the hospital.
“I could hear sounds of heavy gunfire, explosions and airplanes throughout the night,” said Khodaidad, who has only one name. “There were several huge explosions and it sounded like the roof was falling on me.”
MSF said it had treated almost 400 patients in the 150-bed hospital since fighting broke out, most for gunshot wounds.
So many patients have flooded in that the hospital has had to put them in offices and on mattresses on the floor.The International Committee of the Red Cross said it was “deeply shocked” by the incident.
“This is an appalling tragedy,” said Jean-Nicolas Marti, head of the ICRC in Afghanistan. “Such attacks undermine the capacity of humanitarian organizations to assist the Afghan people at a time when they most urgently need it.”