A REPORT RELEASED TODAY by the medical aid group Doctors Without Borders (Médicins Sans Frontieres, or MSF) alleges that a U.S. gunship killed doctors and medical staff as they fled from a burning hospital targeted in a deadly October 3 aerial bombardment in Kunduz, Afghanistan. In addition to documenting the havoc wreaked by the attack, the report also claims that just a day before the bombing, an unnamed U.S. government official in Washington, D.C. had contacted the organization asking whether any Taliban fighters were “holed up” at the Kunduz hospital facility.
In a speech given in Kabul announcing the release of the report, Christopher Stokes, general director of MSF, said that the organization has yet to receive any explanation for the attack from the U.S. military. In light of the evidence that has now been compiled by the organization, “a mistake is quite hard to understand and believe at this stage,” Stokes added.
In its 13-page report on the initial results of its investigation into the incident, MSF says that it found no evidence to support the allegation that armed combatants had been present at the hospital, or that there had been any fighting occurring in the vicinity of the site. In the days leading up to the attack, an average of 117 patients had been receiving treatment in the hospital at any given time. Among these patients were wounded local civilians, government soldiers and Taliban forces, in keeping with both international law and MSF’s own policy of neutrality and treating injured patients without discrimination.
As documented in the report, on September 29, less than a week before the deadly bombing, MSF staff reaffirmed their GPS coordinates in communications with the U.S. Army, Department of Defense and Afghan government officials, all of whom provided either written or verbal acknowledgement of the location information. As fighting in Kunduz intensified around that time, culminating in a humiliating temporary takeover of the city by Taliban forces, a U.S. government official in Washington, D.C. contacted MSF on October 2 inquiring about the safety of its staff and asking whether there were any Taliban “holed up” at the Kunduz hospital or at any of their other facilities.
The next day, at roughly 2 a.m. local time, “MSF international staff members sleeping in the administrative building were woken up by the sound of the first explosions,” as an AC-130 gunship opened fire on the hospital compound. Over the next hour at least 30 MSF staff and patients were killed. Among these casualties were immobile patients in the hospital ICU who were burned alive in their beds, an MSF doctor decapitated after being struck by shrapnel, and a patient in a wheelchair killed as he tried to escape from the inpatient ward.
As the attack continued, despite increasingly frantic communications by MSF to the U.S. military informing them that the hospital was under bombardment, desperate staff were forced to operate on their own grievously injured co-workers. During the attack “an MSF doctor suffered a traumatic amputation to the leg in one of the blasts,” the report notes, explaining that “he was later operated on by the MSF team on a make-shift operating table on an office desk, where he died.”
According to the accounts of MSF staff, throughout the bombing the American AC-130 continued to circle the compound, targeting individuals as they tried to flee the main hospital building, with “medical staff [shot] while running to reach safety in a different part of the compound.”
In his statements today announcing the release of the report, Stokes reiterated his call for accountability for the deadly attack, saying of the bombing, “From what we are seeing now, this action is illegal in the laws of war.”