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Air attacks kill 16 at Doctors Without Borders hospital in Afghanistan

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KABUL, Afghanistan — Aerial bombardments hit a Doctors Without Borders hospital in the battleground Afghan city of Kunduz early Saturday, killing at least 16 people, including nine staffers and seven patients, the charity said.

Three of those patients were children. The circumstances weren’t immediately clear, but the U.S. military conducted an airstrike in Kunduz at the time, and the incident is being investigated, U.S. Army Col. Brian Tibus said.

Specifically, the military is investigating whether a U.S. AC-130 gunship — which was in the area firing on Taliban positions to defend U.S. special operations troops there — is responsible, a U.S. military official said on condition of anonymity.

The attacks, which injured at least 37 other people and left part of the hospital in flames and rubble, came on roughly the sixth day of fighting between Afghan government forces — supported by U.S. airpower and military advisers — and the Taliban, which invaded the city early this week.

The global charity expressed shock, saying it had told all warring parties the exact location of the trauma center, including most recently on Tuesday.

The charity, which had said the facility had been caring for hundreds already hurt in days of fighting, also said that it had alerted U.S. and Afghan military officials of Saturday’s attack, but that the attacks continued.

“The bombing continued for more than 30 minutes after American and Afghan military officials in Kabul and Washington were first informed,” the charity, known internationally as Medecins Sans Frontieres, said. “MSF urgently seeks clarity on exactly what took place and how this terrible event could have happened.”

Thirty people were unaccounted for, MSF said, and it expects the number of people killed or injured to go up.

When the aerial attack occurred, 105 patients and their caretakers were in the hospital. More than 80 MSF international and national staff were present.

The U.S. special operations troops were in the area advising Afghan forces, the military official speaking anonymously said. The official stressed that the information about the probe was preliminary, and that a thorough investigation was underway.

Pribus said a “manned, fixed-wing aircraft” conducted a strike “against individuals threatening the force” at 2:15 a.m., and that the strike “may have resulted in collateral damage to a nearby medical facility.”

The AC-130 is a large, fixed-wing gunship built on a C-130 Hercules cargo plane airframe, according to Boeing, the manufacturer. The AC-130U, the most advanced model, is armed with a 25-millimeter Gatling gun, a 40-mm cannon and a 105-mm cannon, according to the Boeing website.

Mourning and condemnation

The U.N. mission in Afghanistan sharply condemned the airstrike.

“I condemn in the strongest terms the tragic and devastating air strike on the Médecins sans Frontières hospital in Kunduz early this morning, which resulted in the deaths and injury of medical personnel, patients and other civilians,” said Nicholas Haysom, head of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan.

The U.S. Embassy in Kabul expressed condolences in a statement on its Facebook page.

“The U.S. Embassy mourns for the individuals and families affected by the tragic incident at the Doctors without Borders hospital, and for all those suffering from the violence in Kunduz,” it read. The embassy praised the group’s work as “heroic.”

The International Committee of the Red Cross also expressed condemnation.

“Such attacks against health workers and facilities undermine the capacity of humanitarian organizations to assist the Afghan people at a time when they most urgently need it,” said Jean-Nicolas Marti, Head of the ICRC delegation in Afghanistan.

Taliban’s fight in Kunduz

Earlier in the week, the MSF hospital was caught in the crossfire between the Taliban and Afghan security forces who were supported by U.S. troops. The battle encroached on the hospital’s gate.

Bullets broke windows and punctured the roof of the intensive care unit.

The Taliban captured Kunduz city earlier this week in the group’s biggest victory in 15 years. It was a major setback for Afghan forces.

Afghanistan said it reclaimed most of the city Thursday in a big operation backed by U.S. airstrikes.

But hours later, there were signs that the Taliban were back in Kunduz, a resident told CNN. Gunshots erupted near the airport.

Kunduz is a strategic hub on the main highway between Kabul and Tajikistan.

On Thursday, Taliban fighters also took the Warduj district of Badakhshan, east of Kunduz province.

A mistake?

Retired U.S. Army Lt. Gen Mark Hertling said it was common for facilities such as hospitals to give combatants their coordinates.

“The coalition air forces will put something called a no-fly area on that GPS coordinate, so you have a pinpoint dot on a map, where you say something is there … don’t hit it,” Hertling said.

“But when the fluidness of the battlefield takes place and you have engagements with troops on the ground, sometimes there are mistakes,” he said,

One area for possible error, he said: Reports in which a spotter on the ground gives target information to pilots.

“There are all sorts of things that could go wrong …. Did the pilot have this no-fly area?” Hertling said. “Was there something wrong with the aircraft? Was there something wrong with the bomb or the weapons system? All of those things will be part of the investigation.”