At least 16 people, including staffers and patients, at a hospital run by Doctors Without Borders in Kunduz, a city in Afghanistan, were killed during a United States airstrike early on Saturday. Around 30 are still missing.
The Afghan military has been fighting to retake Kunduz since Monday, the Associated Press reports, when Taliban fighters overran the city. The U.S. military confirmed the 2:15 a.m. airstrike—the 12th in the area since Tuesday—in a statement. A spokesman, U.S. Army Col. Brian Tribus, said the strike “may have resulted in collateral damage to a nearby medical facility.”
Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontiers) said the trauma center, where 105 patients were being treated and more than 80 international and Afghan staff were employed, “was hit several times during sustained bombing and was very badly damaged.”
A spokesman for the Interior Ministry, Sediq Sediqqi, said at a press conference that 10 to 15 “terrorists” had been using the hospital as a hiding spot: “All of the terrorists were killed but we also lost doctors.” A Kunduz police spokesman, Sayed Sarwar Hussaini, also told the New York Times that Taliban fighters were using the hospital as a firing position.
However, two hospital employees who survived the bombing disputed this account, saying that not only were there no Taliban fighters inside the hospital but that there had been no fighting nearby. According to the Times, the hospital’s policy of treating wounded from all sides of the conflict regardless of affiliation has been a consistent source of tension with Afghan security forces.
Update 12:48 pm: In a statement, Doctors Without Borders said the death toll had increased to 19, including 12 staff members and seven patients. Three of the patients killed in the bombing were children. Thirty-seven people were injured.
The statement continues:
From 2:08 AM until 3:15 AM local time today, MSF’s trauma hospital in Kunduz was hit by a series of aerial bombing raids at approximately 15 minute intervals. The main central hospital building, housing the intensive care unit, emergency rooms, and physiotherapy ward, was repeatedly hit very precisely during each aerial raid, while surrounding buildings were left mostly untouched.
“The bombs hit and then we heard the plane circle round,” said Heman Nagarathnam, MSF Head of Programmes in northern Afghanistan.
“There was a pause, and then more bombs hit. This happened again and again. When I made it out from the office, the main hospital building was engulfed in flames. Those people that could had moved quickly to the building’s two bunkers to seek safety. But patients who were unable to escape burned to death as they lay in their beds.”
The bombing took place despite the fact that MSF had provided the GPS coordinates of the trauma hospital to Coalition and Afghan military and civilian officials as recently as Tuesday 29 September, to avoid that the hospital be hit. As is routine practice for MSF in conflict areas, MSF had communicated the exact location of the hospital to all parties to the conflict.
“This attack is abhorrent and a grave violation of International Humanitarian Law,” Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontiers) president Meinie Nicolai said. “We demand total transparency from Coalition forces. We cannot accept that this horrific loss of life will simply be dismissed as ‘collateral damage.’”