Aid group calls for investigation after hospital hit by apparent U.S. airstrike

A hospital run by Doctors Without Borders in Kunduz, Afghanistan, was damaged early Saturday after being hit by an American airstrike, which appears to have accidentally caused significant civilian casualties. Executive Director for Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières Jason Cone joins Hari Sreenivasan via Skype form Tokyo.

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    The seizure of Kunduz, Afghanistan's sixth largest city, was the Taliban's biggest tactical victory since 2001.

    And fighting with government troops has escalated there all week. Ten thousand American soldiers remain in the country to assist the Afghan army.

    Joining us now via Skype from Tokyo, Japan, is Jason Cone, he is the executive director of MSF-USA, or Doctors Without Borders. This is a terrible day for your organization. You've likely been in contact with some of those people that were affected in Kunduz.

    What do they describe is happening?


    Yes, it's definitely one of the darkest days in our organization's history these last 12, 24 hours.

    And we've been in touch with the teams on the ground, and we are evacuating our international staff from Kunduz, and what they tell us is that the bombs hit around 2:00 a.m. this morning Afghanistan time in Kunduz.

    And then they heard planes circling around. And there was a pause and then there were more bombs hit.

    And this happened again and again. And when our staff went out of their office, the main hospital building was engulfed in flames, and we had patients who were unable to escape who died in their beds, who were burned to death.

    As of now, we have 19 deaths, 12 of our staff have been killed. At least seven of our patients died including three children.

    So, it's a very dark day for us in our history and we're calling for an independent investigation and calling on the coalition forces and the U.S. government in particular to make sure that any investigation that's been conducted, that we have the findings in that investigation and not just the conclusion.

    This attack has just been a grave violation of humanitarian law and we're disgusted by what's happened today.


    Now, when you operate in different countries, you're very specific about making sure that parties that are in conflict know that you're neutral and you're somewhere specific.

    What sorts of efforts or measures did you go to to make sure that all the fighting parties knew that you were a safe zone?


    Well, we make direct contact at the field level with various armed groups. Our head of mission had contact with Afghan authorities in Kabul.

    And I can tell you that on September 29th, and the weeks prior, we had made sure that at the highest levels of both the military and civilian chain of command in the U.S. government that they had the GPS coordinates of our compound, of the trauma center in Kunduz, including the GPS coordinates of the specific buildings inside that compound.

    Now, we conveyed that information on September 29th, and then at the outset of the attack, we also made contact with various contacts at the joint chairman's office to reiterate that the attack was unfolding, and that it was unfolding around our compound and inside.

    And we conveyed that information in real time, and we saw nothing change. And you see now that we have 19 dead, 37 wounded at least, if not more.


    Just to clarify — once the hospital was under attack, your agency made contact with the U.S. military, the Afghan forces to tell them, and the bombs still kept falling?


    That is correct. We informed our contacts, both in Washington and Kabul level, and the attacks continued to happen, in spite of our efforts, both in the days prior and when the attack was unfolding.


    What is the state of the hospital now? I mean, this was a place that was actually taking in the wounded from the fighting that's been happening for several days?

    Is there anywhere that any of the wounded now can go if that hospital is incapacitated?


    No, you're seeing a loss of access to trauma care. It was the only facility in this area, in the northeastern region of Afghanistan.

    We've been treating hundreds of wounded over the past few days during the fighting in Kunduz. And so, you're basically seeing complete loss of access to health care for trauma injuries in the area.

    There's no one to replace it and our hospitals are obviously not operationally under the circumstances.


    So, what have you done afterwards for your staff in that area?


    We have evacuated our international staff to Kabul and we have also transported the wounded to another hospital about two hours away, and we're trying to right now provide as much support to them as possible in Kunduz.

    It's obviously quite difficult under the circumstances and the instability inside Kunduz.


    And finally, what are you asking for from the U.S. military? They've offered basically apologies.

    They've said that they're going to launch their own investigation. But when you meet with Pentagon officials or other people over the next few days, what are you looking for?


    We want an explanation, and we want an independent investigation. We want to understand what happened over the past hours when this attack unfolded.

    There's honestly no justification. It was clear that this was a fully functioning hospital, that there are hundreds of patients and staff inside, and we need answers, and we need those answers not just from the U.S. military, but we need some kind of independent investigation that's credible.

    And we don't want to just hear that this was some kind of mistake and that there's just collateral damage.

    They had every information that they needed to prevent this loss of life. And it's one of the darkest days in our organization's history and we will accept nothing less than a full, transparent, independent investigation.


    Also, there were some reports that perhaps the Taliban had infiltrated the compound and were actually firing from there.

    In the last few days, did any member of your organization witness that or were you under threat in that way?


    We were not under threat in any way. As I said earlier, we were in complete contact with all sides of the fighting.

    They accepted that this was a facility that was treating anyone who was wounded, and I can tell you is that as far as our staff now, the gates of the hospital compound were closed all night so that no one — that is not staff, a patient or caretaker was inside the hospital when the bombing happened.

    It's also important to keep in mind, according to humanitarian law, any injured person in the hospital is considered a noncombatant, whatever side they may have fought for before.

    In any case, bombing a fully functioning hospital can never be justified.


    All right. Jason Cone, the executive director of MSF-USA — thanks so much for your time and I'm sorry for your loss.


    Thank you very much.

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