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Toll from attack on Afghan hospital may rise, group says, as details emerge

Afghan men who survived last week’s bombing at a Kunduz hospital received treatment Thursday in Kabul.
Afghan men who survived last week’s bombing at a Kunduz hospital received treatment Thursday in Kabul.MOHAMMAD ISMAIL/Reuters

KABUL — The death toll may increase significantly from an airstrike that devastated the Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz, officials from the organization said Thursday, as the search continued for 24 staff members, many of them feared to be dead.

The deaths of 12 hospital staff members and 10 patients have been confirmed in the US military airstrike, with an additional 37 people wounded. Five days after the Oct. 3 attack, Doctors Without Borders was still unable to account for 24 of its workers. It has set up a hot line for them to call.

“We are worried,” said Guilhem Molinie, the charitable organization’s representative in Afghanistan. “We haven’t stopped looking for them, and we’re not the only ones. Their families want to know where they are, too. We fear that some of them may be dead.”

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Molinie said there might still be bodies in the hospital’s heavily damaged main building, but the group had not been able to return to inspect it because of security concerns.

New details of the attack emerged Thursday at a news conference the organization held in Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital, as its officials repeated their call for an independent, international investigation.

The US warplane that attacked the hospital, believed to be an AC-130 gunship supporting American Special Operations or Special Forces troops, made five bombing runs, spaced about 15 minutes apart, beginning at 2:08 a.m. Saturday and continuing for an hour and 15 minutes, Doctors Without Borders officials said.

Earlier reports from the group had said the bombing went on for 30 minutes, but the officials said the half-hour referred to the length of time the bombing continued after Doctors Without Borders had reached Americans in Kabul and Washington to tell them the hospital was under attack.

Each of the five passes — with the aircraft firing rapidly with munitions that caused explosions inside the building — specifically targeted the main hospital building, which housed the emergency room, intensive care unit, blood lab, and X-ray area, the group said.

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“It was hit with precision repeatedly while surrounding buildings were left untouched,” Molinie said.

Most of the victims were in the emergency room, intensive care unit, and blood lab. Patients in nearby wards, some of them no more than 10 yards from the main building, were unhurt, according to Doctors Without Borders.

There was no active ground combat in the vicinity at the time of the attack as far as officials inside the hospital could tell, Molinie said. He described the afternoon and evening before the attack as unusually quiet compared with previous days of fighting since the Taliban captured Kunduz on Sept. 28.

Ambulances were able to bring civilian victims to the hospital that day; the patients included a family of five hit in their car as they tried to flee the city. Three children from the family were killed in the airstrike, Doctors Without Borders officials said.

Both Taliban and government fighters were being treated in the hospital — a fully equipped trauma center specializing in war wounds, with 150 beds and a staff of more than 400 that included expatriates and Afghans — but Doctors Without Borders officials insisted there had been no weapons or explosives anywhere inside the hospital compound, in line with its longstanding policy.

The group has on several occasions shut down its hospitals in Afghanistan when armed men insisted on entering.

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“Once patients are injured, they lose their combatant status, according to international law,” Molinie said.

An operation was underway at the time of the airstrike, with a general surgeon, an orthopedic surgeon, and an anesthesiologist, all foreigners, working in a separate wing of the building that was struck. The airstrikes, however, were concentrated on the main wing of the building. No foreign staff members were wounded or killed.