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Air attacks kill at least 19 at Afghanistan hospital; U.S. investigating

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KABUL, Afghanistan  — All the dead and injured in Saturday strikes on a Medecins Sans Frontieres hospital in the Afghan city of Kunduz were Afghan nationals, MSF spokeswoman Corinne Baker told CNN on Saturday.

Aerial bombardments blew apart a Doctors Without Borders hospital in the battleground Afghan city of Kunduz around the time of a U.S. airstrike early Saturday, killing at least 19 people, officials said.

The predawn blasts left part of the hospital in flames and rubble, killing 12 staffers and seven patients — including three children — and injuring 37 other people, the charity said.

As the United States said it was investigating what struck the hospital, the charity expressed shock and demanded answers, stressing that all combatants had been told long ago where the hospital was.

“(The bombing) constitutes a grave violation of international humanitarian law,” Doctors Without Borders, known internationally as Medecins Sans Frontieres, or MSF, said Saturday.

“There are many patients and staff who remain unaccounted for. The numbers may grow as a clearer picture develops of the aftermath of this horrific bombing,” MSF said.

The bombardments continued even after U.S. and Afghan military officials were notified the hospital was being attacked, the charity said.

The circumstances weren’t immediately clear, but the U.S. military was conducting an airstrike in Kunduz at the time the hospital was hit, 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 incident occurred on roughly the sixth day of fighting between Afghan government forces — supported by U.S. air power and military advisers — and the Taliban, which invaded the city early this week.

U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said the military still was trying to determine what caused the destruction.

“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,” Carter said. “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.”

Charity: We told everyone of our location

The charity, which had had been caring for hundreds already hurt in days of fighting, said it had told all warring parties the exact location of the trauma center, including most recently on Tuesday.

It 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 said. “MSF urgently seeks clarity on exactly what took place and how this terrible event could have happened.”

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 who was 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.”