MSF demands international investigation of Afghan hospital bombing

(Transcript from SBS World News Radio)

The international medical agency Medecins Sans Frontiers says it hopes to return to northern Afghanistan following an air attack on its hospital that killed both staff and patients.

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MSF has condemned the bombing in Kunduz as a war crime and is demanding an independent international investigation into the event.

As Kristina Kukolja reports, MSF is withdrawing its surviving workers from the city, leaving civilians in the war-ravaged region without access to critical medical care.

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Medecins Sans Frontiers says children were among the more than 20 people killed when a hospital run by its staff in Kunduz came under repeated aerial bombardment.

The medical agency has condemned the attack, believed to be by United States forces, calling it a war crime and a grave breach of international humanitarian law.

The US government is promising a full investigation.

But MSF General Director Christopher Stokes says that is not enough, and it wants an independent and transparent international inquiry to establish the course of events.

He has told the Russian news agency Sputnik, MSF cannot accept a US army statement that a strike at Taliban targets in the vicinity may have caused what it termed “collateral damage”.

“We completely condemn this view that, somehow, this was, perhaps, collateral damage. Collateral damage suggests that one bomb, the shrapnel, hit the wrong target. But, this was a repeated strike against a clearly identifed hospital. We had sent the exact coordinates of the hospital to all the warring parties, both the Afghan opposition and also the Afghan government and the American forces.”

Despite that, MSF says, the bombing went on for over an hour, leaving the medical facility no longer functional and forcing patients and staff to evacuate.

Under international humanitarian law, hospitals are among protected civilian sites during armed conflict.

And the United Nations-backed International Criminal Court in The Hague, with jurisdiction over war crimes, lists intentionally directing attacks against hospitals as a prohibited act.

The world body, itself, has acknowledged the incident may constitute such a violation.

Christopher Stokes says MSF staff undertook all necessary measures in notifying the warring sides of the hospital’s location.

“We work in a number of conflict settings, and we’ve done so for a long time, and experiences show that you have to identify your building quite clearly, you have to inform all parties to the conflict, and you must make sure to guarantee the safety and security of your patients. We did everything that we were supposed to do, but those were not enough to prevent this attack.”

As residents of Kunduz inspect the damage caused by the latest fighting, there are warnings of a dire humanitarian situation in the city.

Hospitals are short on doctors and medical supplies, and food is reportedly running out.

MSF says its centre was the only one of its kind in northern Afghanistan providing free high-level trauma care.

It has also denied claims from Afghan government officials that Taliban fighters were firing weapons from inside the buildings at the time of the attack.

The province of Kunduz is a former Taliban stronghold and has recently been the site of the most significant Taliban gains since the United States drove the group from power.

Coalition forces are backing the Afghan military from the air in a bid to push back against its advances.

President Ashraf Ghani, meanwhile, has faced heavy criticism over the Afghan government’s allegedly inadequate response to the Taliban resurgence.

In Kabul, a member of parliament, Fatima Aziz, says President Ghani should be held responsible for the suffering in Kunduz.

(Translated)”I want to say clearly and without any fear that the presidential palace was behind the fall of Kunduz city to the Taliban. Right now, as I am talking with you, the dead bodies of my people are rotting in the streets of Kunduz. A resident of Kunduz phoned me and said he has buried a member of his family inside the yard of his house, and they were saying that they will die because of hunger. I don’t know what President Ashraf Ghani wants, but it is better for him that he apologises to the residents of Kunduz.”

MSF says, at the time of the attack, there were more than a hundred patients and their caretakers in the hospital, along with more than 80 international and national staff.