Bombed MSF Kunduz hospital was on US no-strike list before attack

After internal investigation, US Army Gen. John Campbell calls attack ‘human and process error’

The crew of a U.S. warplane that attacked a medical charity's hospital in northern Afghanistan last month provided its operational headquarters with coordinates for the site — which was on a no-strike list — before the assault, which killed and wounded dozens of civilians, according to an internal Pentagon investigation.

Results of the investigation, first reported by The Associated Press, said the crew of the warplane, a U.S. AC-130 gunship, relied on a physical description of the compound provided by Afghan forces, which led the crew to attack the wrong target, a hospital run by Doctors Without Borders (known by its French initials, MSF). It said the intended target, thought to be under Taliban control and being used in part as a prison, was 450 yards from the hospital.

"This was a tragic mistake. U.S. forces would never intentionally strike a hospital or other protected facilities," U.S. Army Gen. John Campbell, the commander of international and U.S. forces in Afghanistan, said at a news conference to announce the results of the investigation.

"The aircrew transmitted to their operational headquarters at Bagram airfield that they were about to engage the building," he said. "They provided the coordinates for the MSF trauma center as their target. The headquarters was aware of the coordinates for the MSF trauma center and had access to the no-strike list but did not realize that the grid coordinates for the target matched a location on the no-strike list or that the aircrew was preparing to fire on a hospital." 

Campbell called the strike "an example of human and process error." 

Investigators said they found no evidence that the crew or the U.S. special forces commander on the ground who authorized the strike knew the targeted compound was a hospital at the time of the attack.

Still, "some individuals have been suspended from their duty positions," Pentagon spokesman Gen. Wilson Shoffner said at the conference. "The investigation found that some of the U.S. individuals involved did not follow the rules of engagement." 

"We did not intentionally strike the hospital. We are absolutely heartbroken over what has occurred here, and we will do everything in our power to ensure it does not happen again," he added, saying that the Pentagon has ordered training for U.S. personnel on targeting and rules of engagement. 

The plane fired 211 shells at the compound over 25 minutes before commanders realized the mistake and ordered a halt, the report says. MSF has said that it called the Pentagon twice — before and during the attack. Shoffner said that MSF called 12 minutes into the attack and that the warplane halted fire five minutes later. 

The report says the attack, on Oct. 3 in the city of Kunduz, killed at least 31 civilians and injured 28 others. Investigators determined that additional civilians likely were killed or injured.

MSF was highly critical of the Pentagon's response. "The U.S. version of events presented today leaves MSF with more questions than answers," said MSF director Christopher Stokes in a press release. "It is shocking that an attack can be carried out when U.S. forces have neither eyes on a target nor access to a no-strike list, and have malfunctioning communications systems."

The investigation, known officially as a combined civilian casualty assessment, was led by U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Richard Kim and consisted of representatives of NATO and the Afghan government. It was charged with determining facts surrounding the incident but not to assign blame.

A subsequent U.S. military investigation was initiated to look further at the case and to determine accountability. 

MSF said earlier this month in its own report about the attacks that several doctors and nurses were killed immediately and that patients who could not move burned to death in the ensuing fire. Hospital staff members made 18 attempts to call or text U.S. and Afghan authorities, the group said.

People fleeing the main building were cut down by gunfire that appeared to track their movements, and a patient trying to escape in a wheelchair was killed by shrapnel, the MSF report said.

MSF, which said it could not rely on U.S., NATO or Afghan internal investigations to examine the bombing, said the Swiss-based International Humanitarian Fact-Finding Commission (IHFFC) has been asked to conduct an independent investigation at the request of a state that it did not name. To proceed, the commission would need the approval of the U.S. and Afghan governments. Tim Shenk, an MSF spokesman in the U.S., told Al Jazeera that approval has not yet been granted. IHFFC did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

"Investigations of this incident cannot be left solely to parties to the conflict in Afghanistan," MSF director Christopher Stokes said in a press release. 

The Defense Department stood by the findings of the investigation described Wednesday. 

"We believe the investigation completed was full and impartial," Shoffner said.

The report said investigators found no evidence that the Americans involved knew they were attacking a hospital. It said they found no evidence that key commanders, including the Afghans and the AC-130 gunship crew, had access to a no-strike list of targets that were off-limits to attack. Under U.S. rules of engagement, no hospital or similar facility is a valid target.

It is unclear whether the U.S. special forces commander on the ground, who authorized the air assault, had the map grid coordinates for the MSF hospital available to him at the time he authorized the attack, the report said. The medical charity provided GPS coordinates for its medical facilities in Kunduz to Afghan government officials and U.S. military authorities in Kabul on Sept. 29.

"This mission critical information was not received by the AC-130 aircrew" or the Afghan commanders, the report said.

"The misidentification of the MSF compound and its subsequent engagement resulted from a series of human errors, compounded by failures of process and procedure and malfunctions of technical equipment, which restricted the situational awareness" of the U.S. forces involved, the report concluded.

President Barack Obama has apologized for the attack, one of the worst incidents of civilian casualties in the 14-year history of the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan.

Al Jazeera and wire services. Jennifer Glasse contributed reporting from Kabul. 

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