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Aid workers killed in suspected US air strike on Afghan hospital

@KatesCurious | Shocked MSF staff in one of remaining parts of MSF's hospital in Kunduz. Photo published by MSF's communications manager in Afghanistan, Kate Stegeman, on her Twitter account

The US military on Saturday said it could have been responsible for an air strike that hit a hospital run by medical NGO Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in the Afghan city of Kunduz, killing at least 12 MSF staff in an attack that lasted 30 minutes.

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US forces launched an air strike at 2.15am local time (21:45 GMT), the spokesman, Col. Brian Tribus, said in a statement.

“The strike may have resulted in collateral damage to a nearby medical facility,” he added. “This incident is under investigation.”

MSF reported that a further seven non-staff members had been killed and 37 people were seriously wounded in the attack. The group added that many patients and staff remained unaccounted for.

The incident could renew concerns about the use of US air power in Afghanistan, a controversial issue in America's longest war. The news came just a day after Obama slammed Russian strikes in Syria as a “recipe for disaster” on Friday.

MSF said that Kabul and Washington were informed of the precise location of their facilities and that GPS coordinates were communicated on multiple occasions, including as recently as September 29, 2015.

“MSF condemns in the strongest possible terms the horrific bombing of its hospital in Kunduz full of staff and patients,” the medical aid group said in a statement.

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

US apology

The head of US-led forces in Afghanistan apologised to the country’s president, the president’s office said on Saturday.

Army General John Campbell provided details to President Ashraf Ghani and apologised, a statement from Ghani’s office said.

A spokeswoman for the international coalition could not immediately confirm that Campbell phoned Ghani but said she was checking.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said US air strikes targeted the hospital and had killed patients, doctors and nurses. None of its fighters was a patient in the hospital, the militant group said.

The US military has unleashed several air strikes this week in support of government forces in the city, where Taliban fighters were still holding out against Afghan troops on Friday.

Frontline of bloody conflict

MSF said its trauma centre in Kunduz was hit several times during sustained bombing and was very badly damaged.

A wall of the hospital’s main building collapsed, scattering fragments of glass and wooden door frames, while three rooms were on fire, explained Saad Mukhtar, director of public health in Kunduz.

“Thick black smoke could be seen rising from some of the rooms,” Mukhtar said after a visit to the hospital. “The fighting is still going on, so we had to leave."

MSF said hospital staff were treating the injured. The hospital is the only one in the region that can deal with major injuries.

“Many #MSF patients & staff remain unaccounted for. Numbers growing as picture becomes clearer in aftermath of this horrific bombing," Kate Stegeman, communications manager for MSF in Afghanistan, wrote on Twitter, noting that nine MSF members were dead as of noon Saturday.

Others reacted with shock at the attack.

“We are deeply shocked by the attack, the killing of our staff and patients and the heavy toll it has inflicted on healthcare in Kunduz," the aid group’s operations director, Bart Janssens, said in a statement.

Amnesty International said the bombing of the hospital marked "a dark day for humanitarianism".

"It is sickening to think that doctors and other staff have had to pay with their lives while trying to save others. Hospitals are places of sanctity under international law governing conflict," said Amnesty’s Afghanistan Researcher Horia Mosadiq.

The hospital was on the frontline of the increasingly bloody conflict, with fighting outside its gates, its chief, Dr Masood Nasim, said this week.

The sound of shelling, rockets and fighter jets could be heard overhead, Nasim added, with stray bullets finding their way through the roof of its intensive care unit.

MSF said it had treated almost 400 patients in the 150-bed hospital since fighting broke out in Kunduz six days ago, most for gunshot wounds suffered in crossfire.

So many patients have flooded the hospital that it has had to accommodate them in offices and mattresses on the floor.

(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS)

FRANCE 24's Taha Siddiqui reports on the aftermath of the Kunduz strike

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