US probe says Afghan hospital strike was 'human error'

Surgeons work in an undamaged part of the hospital in Kunduz after it was hit.
Surgeons work in an undamaged part of the hospital in Kunduz after it was hit.AFP

KABUL (AFP) - A deadly air strike on a Doctors Without Borders hospital was “caused primarily by human error”, the US commander in Afghanistan said Wednesday, promising disciplinary action as he detailed a US investigation into the catastrophic attack.

The Oct 3 air raid on the French charity’s hospital during a Taliban offensive in the northern city of Kunduz killed at least 30 people, sparked an avalanche of global condemnation and forced the facility to close.

The “tragic but avoidable accident (was) caused primarily by human error,” General John Campbell told reporters at Nato headquarters in Kabul, adding those most closely associated with the incident had been suspended from their duties.

He blamed in part fatigue on the part of US troops who had been battling a Taleban offensive in Kunduz for five days, adding that the mistake was “compounded by process and equipment failures”.

The Special Operations AC-130 gunship aircraft hit the hospital instead of an Afghan intelligence compound hundreds of feet away that was thought to have been commandeered by Taleban fighters during their brief capture of the northern provincial capital, he said.

“The medical facility was misidentified as a target by US personnel who believed they were striking a different building several hundred metres away where there were reports of combatants,” Campbell said.

Those who requested and executed the strike “did not undertake appropriate measures to verify that the facility was a legitimate military target”, he said.

Some of those involved in the attacks failed to follow the rules of engagement, Brigadier General Wilson Shoffner said at the same news conference.

Doctors Without Borders has called for an independent international investigation, saying the attack could be determined to be a “war crime”.

The strike began at 2.08am local time, Campbell said, and at 2.20am MSF phoned the US military to report they were under attack.

“It took the headquarters and the US special operations commander until 2.37am to realise the fatal mistake. At that time, the AC-130 had already ceased firing. The strike lasted for approximately 29 minutes,” he added.

Electronic systems on board the gunship had malfunctioned, he said, cutting off much of its communications, and the aircraft had diverted from its path believing it had been targeted by a missile, degrading the accuracy of “certain target systems”.

This meant that when the crew entered the coordinates they were directed to an open field some 300m from the intended target.

“The investigating officer found that the air crew visually located the closest, largest building near the open field which we now know was the MSF trauma centre,” Campbell said, referring to Doctors Without Borders, or Medecins Sans Frontieres as it is also known.

The hospital appeared similar to the description provided of the intended target, and at night the crew was “unable to identify any signs of the hospital’s protected status.”

“We have learned from this terrible incident,” said Campbell.

“We will also take administrative and disciplinary action through a process that is fair and thorough (and) considers the available evidence.”

On Tuesday, Doctors Without Borders released short biographies of 14 staff members who died in the attack, including doctors, nurses, cleaners and guards. They were described as dedicated to their work and their country.

When Abdul Satar Zaheer, the 47-year-old deputy medical director, was asked by his son why he often worked until midnight, “he would say that he was not working, but serving the Afghan people”, MSF said.

Tahseel, a 35-year-old pharmacist, was killed after returning from holiday a few days early “to assist the team when they needed him most”.

In the initial days after the attack the US military offered a series of shifting explanations before President Barack Obama admitted in a call to MSF chief Joanne Liu that it had been a mistake and apologised.

A Nato statement released hours after the attack would not confirm the hospital was targeted, characterising it instead as “collateral damage” as Afghan forces came under fire.

The next day the US confirmed the hospital was hit directly but did not offer further details.

Later General Campbell suggested that Afghan forces had called in the strike, before offering a fourth account in four days admitting US special forces had been in touch with the aircraft.

Nato and the Afghan army are conducting their own investigations.