KABUL – U.S. forces may have mistakenly bombed a hospital in northern Afghanistan on Saturday, killing at least three people in an incident that will likely raise new questions about the scope of American involvement in the country’s 14-year war.
In a statement, Doctors Without Borders said an airstrike “partially destroyed” their trauma hospital in Kunduz, where the Afghan military has been trying to drive Taliban fighters from the city.
The airstrike killed at least three hospital staffers while more than 30 others are still missing. It was not immediately clear how many patients were killed or wounded.
“We are deeply shocked by the attack, the killing of our staff and patients and the heavy toll it has inflicted on Kunduz,” Bart Janseens, director of operations for the hospital. “We do not yet have final casualty figures, but our medical teams are providing first aid and treating injured patients and…accounting for the deceased.”
Over the past week, U.S. military jets have conducted numerous airstrikes in Kunduz after the Taliban overwhelmed Afghan security forces on Monday. American Special Operations troops and on-the-ground military advisers from the NATO coalition have also been assisting Afghan forces.
In a statement, the U.S.-led coalition confirmed it carried out an airstrike about 2 a.m. Saturday in response to “individuals threatening the force.”
“The strike may have resulted in collateral damage to a nearby medical facility,” said Col. Brian Tribus, a coalition spokesman. “This incident is under investigation.”
The Doctors Without Borders facility was the only functional hospital in that part of Afghanistan. The organization posted photographs on Twitter showing part of the hospital was engulfed in flames shortly after the attack.
As the Afghan army battled Taliban fighters in the streets of Kunduz this week, the hospital has been struggling to treat hundreds of patients.At the time of Saturday’s airstrike, 105 patients and more than 80 doctors and nurses were inside the hospital
In recent days, Doctors Without Borders was issuing frequent updates to the media detailing the strain of trying to cope with the influx of patients. The hospital was also reportedly running low on supplies.
Doctors Without Borders treats all patients it receives, including insurgents fighting the government.
Concerns about civilian causalities in Kunduz, Afghanistan’s sixth largest city, have been mounting all week. On Thursday, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said those concerns were one reason Afghan security forces were being cautious in their efforts to retake the city.
Over the past decade, U.S. airstrikes in Afghanistan have been controversial here because of the risk of civilian causalities and so-called friendly fire incidents.
During his final years in office, former Afghan president Hamid Karzai repeatedly accused the United States military of being reckless in how it carried out airstrikes. After Ghani replaced Karzai last year, relations between the Afghan government and coalition officials improved dramatically.
But in July, a coalition airstrike in mistakenly killed 10 Afghan soldiers, local officials said. Last month, Afghan officials accused the international coalition of killing 11 counternarcotic officers during an airstrike in Helmand Province.
Coalition officials initially denied involvement. But they issued another statement a day later retracting that denial, saying the matter was now under investigation.