KABUL, Afghanistan, Oct. 3 (UPI) -- International human-rights organizations are calling for an independent investigation of possible war crimes after at least 20 Doctors without Borders staff were killed and dozens of others were injured in a possible U.S. airstrike on a hospital in the Afghan city of Kunduz.
The aid group, known internationally as Medecins Sans Frontieres, said at least nine staff members, most of whom are from the local area, and seven intensive-care patients, three of them children, died in the bombing. The hospital was bombed at approximately 15 minute intervals between 2:08 a.m. and 3:15 a.m. local time, the organization said. The airstrikes destroyed part of the hospital and sparked fires that burned for hours.
Col. Brian Tribus, a spokesman for U.S. and coalition troops in Afghanistan, confirmed a U.S. airstrike conducted at around 2:15 a.m. local time "may have caused collateral damage to a nearby health facility." Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said a "full investigation into the tragic incident is underway in coordination with the Afghan government," not addressing any possible U.S. involvement.
On bombing of @MSF hospital in Kunduz: "We cannot accept that this horrific loss of life will simply be dismissed as 'collateral damage.'"— MSF International (@MSF) October 3, 2015
At the same time, Human Rights Watch called for an "impartial, thorough, and transparent investigation" and urged the U.S. to review its targeting procedures.
United Nations human rights chief Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein also called for an independent investigation, equating the airstrikes on the hospital to a war crime.
"This event is utterly tragic, inexcusable, and possibly even criminal," al-Hussein said. "This deeply shocking event should be promptly, thoroughly and independently investigated and the results should be made public. The seriousness of the incident is underlined by the fact that, if established as deliberate in a court of law, an airstrike on a hospital may amount to a war crime."
The aid group said 37 were seriously wounded, including 19 staff members. Some of the more seriously injured were transferred to a nearby hospital, about two hours away. The bombing forced staff to establish makeshift operating areas. MSF officials said the main hospital building with an intensive care, emergency room and physiotherapy area was "repeatedly hit very precisely during each aerial raid, while surrounding buildings were left mostly untouched."
"Besides resulting in the deaths of our colleagues and patients, this attack has cut off access to urgent trauma care for the population in Kunduz at a time when its services are most needed," Meinie Nicolai, MSF president, said. The MSF hospital is the only facility of its kind in northeastern Afghanistan.
Shortly after the bombing, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul and the International Committee of the Red Cross expressed sympathies for victims. The Red Cross said the bombing violates international humanitarian law, which protects the civilian population, medical personnel, ambulances and medical facilities from violence.
"This is an appalling tragedy. Such attacks against health workers and facilities undermine the capacity of humanitarian organizations to assist the Afghan people at a time when they most urgently need it," Jean-Nicolas Marti, Head of the international Red Cross delegation in Afghanistan, said.
In the past week, U.S. military jets have conducted airstrikes in Kunduz after the Taliban overwhelmed Afghan forces on Monday. An anonymous official told the Washington Post a U.S. AC-130 gunship aircraft detected incoming fire from the Taliban and was authorized to return fire at an area close to the hospital. At the time of the airstrike, the hospital had 105 patients and 80 medical staff.