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US commander accepts responsibility for ‘mistaken’ Afghan hospital raid

‘We would never intentionally target a protected medical facility,’ Gen. John Campbell tells Senate committee

The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. John Campbell, accepted the United States’ responsibility Tuesday for deadly airstrikes on an Afghan hospital in which 22 people were killed, stating that the attack was a “mistake” but that the ultimate decision to shell the facility was made by the U.S. chain of command.

“To be clear, the decision to provide aerial fire was a U.S. decision made within the U.S. chain of command,” he told a Senate committee on Tuesday. It came a day after the U.S. announced that the hospital was hit after a request from local forces, who claimed they were under fire from Taliban fighters at the medical center in the strategic northern city of Kunduz.

Stressing that the U.S. airstrikes on the hospital — which has drawn the ire of the United Nations and medical charity Doctors Without Borders (MSF) — was unintentional, Campbell said, “A hospital was mistakenly struck. We would never intentionally target a protected medical facility.”

On Monday he told reporters that Afghan forces “asked for air support from U.S. air forces” after taking fire from enemy positions. 

“An airstrike was then called to eliminate the Taliban threat, and several civilians were accidentally struck,” Campbell said. 

Testifying at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, he said he could not provide more details about what happened, including who may have failed to follow procedures for avoiding attacks on hospitals. He said he must await the outcome of multiple investigations.

Anti-war protesters sat in the front row of the hearing with red coloring, depicting blood, on their faces. They carried signs that read, “Health care not warfare,” “Afghan hospital bombing is a war crime” and “Kunduz victims: RIP.”

The strike and the subsequent U.S response has drawn widespread anger, not least from MSF, whose staffers were working in the hospital during the attack. On Monday the organization said 12 of its workers were among those killed by the airstrikes. MSF has called for an independent investigation into the incident despite ongoing probes by the U.S. Department of Defense, NATO and the Afghan government. 

Christopher Stokes, the general director of the Geneva-based charity, has said such investigations “would be wholly insufficient.”

“Under the clear presumption that a war crime has been committed, MSF demands that a full and transparent investigation into the event be conducted by an independent international body,” he said on Sunday.

MSF said Afghan and coalition troops were fully aware of the exact location of the hospital, having been given GPS coordinates of the facility, which had been providing care for four years.

It added that despite frantic calls to military officials in Kabul and Washington, the main building housing the intensive care unit and emergency rooms was “repeatedly, very precisely” hit almost every 15 minutes for more than an hour.

At the time, the hospital had 105 patients and caretakers and more than 80 international and Afghan staffers, MSF said.

On Saturday, Afghanistan’s Ministry of Defense said “terrorists” armed with light and heavy weapons had entered the hospital compound and used “the buildings and the people inside as a shield” while firing on security forces. The Taliban said none of its fighters were in the hospital at the time of the bombing and accused Afghanistan’s intelligence service of deliberately directing airstrikes on the hospital.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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