A hospital where Doctors Without Borders was treating people injured in fighting in the Afghan city of Kunduz came under fire early Saturday, possibly from U.S. aircraft, and at least 19 people were killed, including 12 aid workers.
Dozens of hospital staff and patients were wounded in what the aid group described as a sustained bombing as Afghan soldiers backed by international forces continue to battle Taliban fighters in the northern city.
“The strike may have resulted in collateral damage to a nearby medical facility,” U.S. Army Col. Brian Tribus, a spokesman for U.S. forces in Afghanistan, said in an e-mailed statement. He said that an investigation was under way.
U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said the area has been the scene of intense fighting in recent days, adding that both U.S. and Taliban forces were operating nearby. “While we are still trying to determine exactly what happened, I want to extend my thoughts and prayers to everyone affected,” he said.
The pre-dawn bombing continued for more than 30 minutes after the aid group told U.S. and Afghan military officials in Kabul and Washington that its facility was under fire, the aid group said in a statement on its website. It said the hospital was repeatedly hit “very precisely” while surrounding buildings were not damaged.
“MSF urgently seeks clarity on exactly what took place and how this terrible event could have happened,” it said, using the acronym for its French name, Medecins Sans Frontieres. It said it had previously given all sides in the conflict the exact locations of its hospital, guesthouse and stabilization unit.
“All indications currently point to the bombing being carried out by international coalition forces,” the group said in an emailed statement later Saturday. It demanded an independent investigation to ensure “maximum transparency and accountability.” There were 105 patients and caretakers and over 80 MSF international and national staff in the hospital at the time, the statement said.
At least 19 people were killed -- seven patients, including three children, and 12 MSF employees, the group said. It said 37 people were seriously wounded, including 19 MSF workers.
“The bombs hit and then we heard the plane circle round,” said Heman Nagarathnam, MSF Head of Programs 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 attack comes days after Taliban guerrillas captured Kunduz, a strategically located city of about 300,000 in northern Afghanistan, in less than 24 hours of fighting. Afghan forces said they regained Kunduz on Oct. 1 after fighting street battles with Taliban militants. The U.S. provided supporting airstrikes.
France’s foreign ministry demanded an investigation into the bombing.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s office issued a statement saying Ghani had discussed the matter with the commander of the NATO mission, without naming U.S. Army Gen. John Campbell.
Taliban fighters were neither near the hospital nor had patients in it, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahed said in an e-mailed statement.
The United Nations representative office in Kabul condemned the attack “in the strongest terms.”