US air strike on Afghan hospital

24 still missing in attack aftermath

A wounded Afghan boy who survived the US air strike on a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz last Saturday.
A wounded Afghan boy who survived the US air strike on a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz last Saturday.PHOTO: REUTERS

Death toll may rise as doctors' group keeps up search for 2 dozen staff members

KABUL • The death toll may increase significantly from an air strike that devastated the Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, officials from the organisation said, as the search continued for 24 staff members, many of them feared to be dead.

The deaths of 12 hospital staff members and 10 patients have been confirmed in the US air strike, which wounded 37 other people. Five days after the Oct 3 attack, Doctors Without Borders was still unable to locate the 24 staff members, despite having a hotline for them to call.

"We are worried," said Mr Guilhem Molinie, the group's country representative in Afghanistan. "We haven't stopped looking for them, and we're not the only ones. Their families want to know where they are, too. We fear that some of them may be dead." He said there might still be more bodies in the heavily damaged main building of the hospital, but that the group had not been able to return to inspect it because of security concerns.

New details of the air strike emerged on Thursday at a news conference that the organisation held in Kabul, as its officials repeated its call for an independent international investigation.

The US warplane that attacked the hospital, believed to be an AC-130 gunship supporting US Special Operations or Special Forces troops, made five bombing runs, spaced about 15 minutes apart, beginning at 2.08am on Saturday, Doctors Without Borders officials said, and the attack continued for an hour and 15 minutes.

Earlier reports from the group had said the bombing went on for 30 minutes, but the officials said the half-hour referred to the time the bombing continued after Doctors Without Borders had reached Americans in Kabul and Washington to tell them the hospital was under aerial attack.

Each of the five air attacks, described as strafing runs with the aircraft firing rapidly with munitions that caused explosions inside the building, specifically targeted the main hospital building which housed the emergency room, intensive care unit, blood laboratory and X-ray area, the group said. "It was hit with precision repeatedly while surrounding buildings were left untouched," Mr Molinie said.

Most of the victims were in the emergency room, intensive care unit and blood lab. Patients in nearby wards, some of them no more than 9m from the main building, were untouched, according to Doctors Without Borders.

There was no active ground combat in the vicinity of the hospital at the time of the air strike, as far as officials inside the hospital could tell, Mr Molinie said. He described the Friday afternoon and evening before the attack as unusually quiet compared with previous days of fighting since the Taleban captured Kunduz on Sept 28.

There was a single stray bullet around 11pm, but no other audible gunfire near the hospital in the hours leading up to the air strike, the group's officials said.

Mr Christopher Stokes, the organisation's general director, said in Kabul that when US President Barack Obama called the international president of Doctors Without Borders, Dr Joanne Liu, on Wednesday to apologise for the air strike, she asked him to support an independent probe by the International Humanitarian Fact-Finding Commission.

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 10, 2015, with the headline '24 still missing in attack aftermath'. Print Edition | Subscribe