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Kunduz Airstrike Reportedly Kills 19 At Doctors Without Borders Hospital

On May 21, an Afghan child is treated at a Doctors Without Borders hospital in the northern city of Kunduz, after being injured in a fight between the Taliban and Afghan security forces.
Shah Marai
AFP/Getty Images
On May 21, an Afghan child is treated at a Doctors Without Borders hospital in the northern city of Kunduz, after being injured in a fight between the Taliban and Afghan security forces.

Updated at 10:00 a.m. ET Sunday

An aerial attack carried out by U.S. forces appears to have badly damaged a Médecins Sans Frontières trauma center in the Afghan city of Kunduz in the early hours on Saturday, killing 19 people — 12 staff working for the international aid organization and seven patients, including three children.

Thirty-seven were injured in the attack, according to MSF, also known as Doctors Without Borders.

"All indications currently point to the bombing being carried out by international Coalition forces," MSF said.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein urged a full and transparent investigation, calling the attack "tragic, inexcusable and possibly even criminal."

The Pentagon has acknowledged that around the same time as the attack, U.S. warplanes were carrying out "sustained bombing" in the region that could have hit the hospital.

"On behalf of the American people, I extend my deepest condolences to the medical professionals and other civilians killed and injured in the tragic incident at a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz," President Obama said, in a statement released Saturday evening. "The Department of Defense has launched a full investigation, and we will await the results of that inquiry before making a definitive judgment as to the circumstances of this tragedy."

U.S. Army Col. Brian Tribus, a spokesman for U.S. forces in Afghanistan, released a statement:

"U.S. forces conducted an airstrike in Kunduz city at 2:15 a.m. (local), 3 October, against individuals threatening the force. The strike may have resulted in collateral damage to a nearby medical facility. This incident is under investigation."

Secretary of Defense Ash Carter has said that the U.S. is still trying to determine what happened in the airstrike.

In a statement, Carter said:

"Overnight I learned of a tragic incident involving a Doctors without Borders hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, that came under fire. The area has been the scene of intense fighting the last few days. U.S. forces in support of Afghan Security Forces were operating nearby, as were Taliban fighters.

"While we are still trying to determine exactly what happened, I want to extend my thoughts and prayers to everyone affected. A full investigation into the tragic incident is underway in coordination with the Afghan government.

"At this difficult moment, we will continue to work with our Afghan partners to try and end the ongoing violence in and around Kunduz."

The U.S. Embassy in Kabul also issued a statement, saying that its staff

"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. Doctors without Borders performs heroic work throughout the world, including in Afghanistan, and our thoughts and prayers are with their team at this difficult moment. We remain deeply concerned about the ongoing violence in Kunduz and the difficult humanitarian situation faced by its residents."

The attack comes six days after Taliban militants recaptured the city, marking their biggest military gain in 14 years. MSF says that they have treated 394 wounded patients since fighting broke out on Monday, and that at the time of this morning's attack, 105 patients and their caretakers were in the hospital, along with more than 80 staff present.

NPR's Philip Reeves reports that some of the hospital's staff "burned to death as they lay in their beds."

"The organization's trauma hospital in Kunduz was full of people, injured in recent days as Taliban and Afghan government forces battle for control of the city," he says.

MSF calls the hospital the "only facility of its kind" in Afghanistan's northeastern region, providing free trauma care, regardless of a "patient's ethnicity, religious beliefs or political affiliation."

Afghanistan's interior ministry spokesman Sediq Sediqqi says 10 to 15 "terrorists" were hiding in the MSF hospital at the time of the U.S. airstrike in the area. "An explosion hit nearby, killing nine local staffers from the charitable group. Another 30 people are missing," he said, but added that besides terrorists, "we also lost doctors."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.