KABUL – U.S. forces may have mistakenly bombed a hospital in northern Afghanistan on Saturday, killing at least nine 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 nine Doctors Without Borders staff members. At least 37 other people were seriously injured, 19 of whom worked at the hospital. Officials warned the death toll could rise as dozens of people remain unaccounted for.
“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.
Kunduz resident Mirza Langhmani has counted 30 to 35 airstrikes in the area over the past five days. U.S forces conducted 12 of them, including the one suspected of striking the hospital on Saturday, a coalition spokesman said. Afghan forces are also carrying out strikes.
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, according to Doctors Without Borders.
In recent days, Doctors Without Borders issued 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.
Officials with the relief group repeatedly informed the U.S.-led coalition of the hospital’s precise GPS coordinates over the past few months, hospital officials said. The location of the hospital was last conveyed to the international coalition three days ago, officials added.
Once the airstrike began Saturday, hospital officials immediately reached out to U.S. military officials in Kabul and Washington, according to Jason Cone, executive director of Doctors Without Borders in the United States.
“The bombing continued for more than 30 minutes after American and Afghan military officials in Kabul and Washington were first informed,” the organization said in a statement.
On Saturday morning, the Taliban accused the U.S.-led coalition of “savagery” and a “barbaric act.”
The International Red Cross also condemned the bombing.
“This is an appalling tragedy,” said Jean-Nicolas Marti, director of Red Cross operations in Afghanistan. “Such attacks against health workers and facilities undermine the capacity of humanitarian to assist the Afghan people.”
In a separate statement, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul said it “mourns for the individuals and families affected by the tragic incident.”
“Doctors Without Borders performs terrific work throughout the world, including Afghanistan, and our thoughts and prayers are with their team at this difficult moment,” the embassy said. “We remain deeply concerned about the ongoing violence in Kunduz and the difficult humanitarian situation faced by its residents.”
On Saturday morning, Doctors Without Borders circulated photographs showing the aftermath of the bombing. In one photo, a health care worker in blood-stained scrubs huddled in a corner with another man. Another photograph showed doctors and nurses operating on a patient in an undamaged section of the hospital.
Hospital officials are trying to evacuate critically wounded patients to another facility two hours away, a risky undertaking as fierce fighting continues across swaths of northeastern Afghanistan.
Doctors Without Borders was one the last remaining international relief organizations in Kunduz. The United Nations and several other relief groups evacuated their staffers on Monday as the Taliban advanced into the city.
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.
Doctors Without Borders treats all patients it receives, including insurgents fighting the government.
Afghan soldiers were battling militants near the hospital when Saturday’s airstrike took place, said Laghmani.
“The Taliban are taking and evacuating their wounded fighters to the hospital for treatment,” said Laghmani, who said the militant group still controls most of the city. “It was the only advanced hospital, and it was operating under good, foreign leadership.”
In a statement, the Taliban denied any of its fighters were at the hospital at the time of the airstrike.
Langhmani said Kunduz faces a deepening humanitarian crisis.
“The dead bodies are lying on the streets, both the Taliban and also civilians, and no one is allowed to pick up the bodies,” Langhmani said. “There is also an electricity shortage, a water shortage plus a bread shortage.”
A Kunduz official wants the air campaign to continue despite local residents’ anger about the strike that damaged the hospital.
“I believe it is impossible to push back the Taliban from the city without airstrikes,” local police commander Sultan Arab said. “Airstrikes have been so efficient in Kunduz.”
Langhmani said he and many other Kunduz residents also still want the U.S. military’s help against the Taliban.
“But we want precise airstrikes,” Langhmani said. “If there is another like the one that at (the hospital), the people might rise up against both the government and the Taliban.”
Mohammad Sharif contributed to this report.