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Doctors Without Borders Wants Independent Inquiry Into U.S. Attack On Hospital

Doctors Without Borders President Joanne Liu (right) is calling for an international fact-finding investigation into a U.S. airstrike on one of the charity's hospitals.
Fabrice Coffrini
AFP/Getty Images
Doctors Without Borders President Joanne Liu (right) is calling for an international fact-finding investigation into a U.S. airstrike on one of the charity's hospitals.

Calling a U.S. gunship attack on its hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, a "blatant breach of international law," Doctors Without Borders is calling for an independent international investigation into the attack that killed 22 people and wounded 37 more. The group views the airstrike as a war crime.

Twelve of those who died were staff members of the Paris-based charity, which says the attack went on for 30 minutes after it contacted both Afghanistan's and the coalition's military leaders.

The U.S. says the airstrikes were called in by Afghan forces that were fighting the Taliban in the area.

Doctors Without Borders' president, Dr. Joanne Liu, said Wednesday that the deadly strike wasn't "just an attack on our hospital, it was an attack on the Geneva Conventions. It cannot be tolerated."

Update at 5:15 p.m. ET: Doctors Without Borders Responds To Apology

Liu released the following statement in reply to Obama's apology:

"We received President Obama's apology today for the attack against our trauma hospital in Afghanistan. However, we reiterate our ask that the U.S. government consent to an independent investigation led by the International Humanitarian Fact-Finding Commission to establish what happened in Kunduz, how it happened, and why it happened."

Update at 4:15 p.m. ET: President Obama Apologizes

President Obama called and spoke to Liu, to "apologize and express his condolences" for staff and patients who were killed and injured during the airstrike, according to the White House.

"During the call, President Obama expressed regret over the tragic incident and offered his thoughts and prayers on behalf of the American people to the victims, their families, and loved ones," according to a White House readout of the call.

The statement continues, saying the president assured Liu that the Defense Department would produce a "transparent, thorough, and objective accounting of the facts."

In a separate call, Obama spoke with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and commended the bravery of Afghan troops, according to a separate statement. Obama also offered condolences for the Afghan civilians killed and injured in the strike, and highlighted their commitment to Afghanistan's stability.

"President Obama and President Ghani reaffirmed their commitment to strengthening the partnership between the United States and Afghanistan and to continuing their dialogue about ways to deepen diplomatic, economic, and security cooperation to promote a more stable and secure Afghanistan."

Update at 12:15 p.m. ET: MSF Calls For Obama To Approve Fact-Finding Probe

Jason Cone, executive director of Doctors Without Borders in the U.S., says the group, also known as Médecins Sans Frontières, has sent letters "to all 76 signatory countries" of the , asking them to approve an investigation.

That list includes the U.S., Cone said at a news conference in New York today. He urged Obama to agree to the request.

If it's granted, the request would "activate the investigative arm of Geneva Conventions protocols," reports NPR's Quil Lawrence, saying that the commission, despite officially existing since 1991, has never been activated.

Saying that there have been "inconsistencies" in the U.S. and Afghan accounts of what happened, Cone also acknowledged that there may have been Taliban fighters inside the hospital, saying, "We treat anyone who is a victim of conflict... combatants [are] not combatants any more once they are wounded."

Our original post continues:

Both the U.S. and NATO say they've begun their own inquiries into what happened in Saturday's attack. But as we reported over the weekend, the leaders of Doctors Without Borders — or Médecins Sans Frontières — say they won't accept the findings of an inquiry performed by the entities that carried out the strike.

From Paris, where the charity is based, NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports:

"The post-World War II set of international treaties known as the Geneva Conventions protects hospitals as neutral places where any wounded person can be treated.

"The U.S. has admitted bombing the hospital, but says it was a mistake. The Defense Department is currently carrying out an investigation.

"International doctors group MSF, as it is known by its French acronym, says the GPS coordinates for its facility were well known. It has operated the hospital for four years.

"The group says only after an independent investigation will it decide whether or not to bring criminal charges for loss of life and damage."

MSF's leaders have said they're operating under "the clear presumption that a war crime has been committed," as its executive director, Jason Cone, told NPR on Sunday.

Describing the attack, the organization says:

"On the night of the bombing, MSF staff working in the hospital heard what was later confirmed to be a U.S. army plane circle around multiple times, releasing its bombs on the same building within the hospital compound at each pass. The building targeted was the one housing the intensive care unit, emergency rooms and physiotherapy ward."

Legal experts say that despite the attack's tragic consequences, it will be hard to formally declare it a war crime.

As John Bellinger, a former legal adviser to the State Department, tells NPR's Michele Kelemen, "The mere fact that civilians are killed, that a hospital is damaged, doesn't automatically mean that there has been a war crime. It only becomes a war crime if it is shown that the target was intentionally attacked."

In addition to Doctors Without Borders, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and other leaders of the international body have also condemned the attack and called for an independent inquiry.

According to the U.N., the hospital had been the only medical facility of its kind in northeastern Afghanistan — and there are now "no humanitarian agencies left in Kunduz."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.
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