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U.S. General Says Afghans Requested Airstrike That Hit Kunduz Hospital

The American commander in Afghanistan, Gen. John F. Campbell, on Monday responded publicly to criticism over the American airstrike that destroyed a Doctors Without Borders hospital in the city of Kunduz, claiming that Afghan forces had requested the strike while under fire and conceding that the military had incorrectly reported at first that American troops were under direct threat.

But General Campbell's comments, in a sudden and brief news conference at the Pentagon, did not clarify the military's initial claims that the strike, which killed 22 people, had been an accident to begin with. Doctors Without Borders has repeatedly said that there had been no fighting around the hospital, and that the building was hit over and over by airstrikes on Saturday morning, even though the group had sent the American military the precise coordinates of its hospital so it could be avoided.

In the news conference, General Campbell said that Afghan forces had come under fire near the hospital and then called for help. "An airstrike was then called to eliminate the Taliban threat and several civilians were accidentally struck. This is different from the initial reports which indicated that U.S. forces were threatened and that the airstrike was called on their behalf," he said.

For the first time, General Campbell suggested that American Special Forces personnel with the Afghan forces had a role in coordinating the strike.

"The Afghans asked for air support from a Special Forces team that we have on the ground" training and advising Afghan troops in Kunduz, he said.

Asked how close the Americans were to the scene of the fighting when the strike was called in, General Campbell refused to answer, repeating that it would "come out in the investigation."

After the news conference, Doctors Without Borders, which said Sunday that it was pulling its operation out of Kunduz, released a statement calling for an independent investigation, and criticizing the shifting American accounts.

The American military's "description of the attack keeps changing -- from collateral damage, to a tragic incident, to now attempting to pass responsibility to the Afghanistan government," said Christopher Stokes, the general director of Doctors Without Borders, in the statement.

"The reality is the U.S. dropped those bombs. The U.S. hit a huge hospital full of wounded patients and M.S.F. staff," his statement continued, referring to the group by the initials of its French name, Médecins Sans Frontières. "The U.S. military remains responsible for the targets it hits, even though it is part of a coalition. There can be no justification for this horrible attack. With such constant discrepancies in the U.S. and Afghan accounts of what happened, the need for a full transparent independent investigation is ever more critical."

Initial reports had indicated that American advisers and Afghan troops were under heavy Taliban fire in Kunduz when the airstrikes began. But General Campbell, the American commander, said that he had learned from American military investigators who are now in Kunduz that only Afghan forces were under attack at that the time of the strikes, and that there was no direct threat against American troops.

General Campbell, who is in Washington to testify to Congress this week about the American troop presence in Afghanistan, also confirmed reports that an AC-130 gunship was used to conduct the airstrike. The aircraft is a slow-moving variant on a cargo plane that is equipped with large-caliber guns and a howitzer and was originally designed during the Cold War to take out tanks on the plains of northern Europe.

He refused to provide more details about the strike, saying that they would come out in the formal military investigation that is now underway.

Six years ago, Kunduz was the site of another devastating NATO airstrike that killed civilians and added to a growing anger among Afghan officials about such attacks.

That airstrike, which was called in by German NATO personnel in September 2009 after NATO fuel tankers came under Taliban attack near Kunduz city, killed 142, most of them civilians.

The outcry over the strike, and evidence of a coverup by German officials, led to the ouster of the German defense minister and the country's top military officer. And it intensified outrage over a growing civilian toll from NATO and American airstrikes to the point where such attacks became sharply limited for several years.

In Kunduz on Monday, Afghan security forces reported significant progress in trying to retake the city from Taliban fighters who conquered it in a matter of hours last Monday.

Security officials and residents said that the black, red and green Afghan flag was again flying over the governor's house in Kunduz for the first time in a week, and that Afghan forces appeared to have succeeded in clearing the Taliban from some neighborhoods, according to Afghan security officials and residents.

Hungry and thirsty residents of Kunduz began to emerge from their homes in the areas where the security forces had taken control. In some neighborhoods, people walked around taking stock of the damage from the Taliban's weeklong occupation.

"The Afghan National Security Forces have managed to position themselves in different parts of the Kunduz City," said Saeed Sarwar Hussaini, a spokesman for the Kunduz police.

"The city is in the control of the Afghan government," he said. "People have resumed coming out of their homes and a number of grocery shops have also reopened."

He said that the Taliban's front line had vanished but added that the government could not "guarantee 100 percent that the enemy threat is eliminated."

President Ashraf Ghani appointed an acting governor in Kunduz, Hamidullah Danishy, on Monday, who was on hand when the Afghan flag was raised over the governor's house. However, the Afghan forces have hoisted their flag at central points in the city on at least two previous occasions during the past week only to be pushed back hours later. While this appeared to be a more significant incursion, residents said they were not sure it would last.

A half-dozen residents reached by phone described a city only partly in government control, with the Taliban continuing to fight. One resident said his relatives were looking out their front door to see which side's flag was flying over Cinema Square, near the city's center.

"The Afghan national security forces have made some advances in the city, although there is heavy fighting still," said Faraidon, 35, who, like many Afghans uses only one name. He fled the city but had to leave relatives behind.

"My relatives told me that at Cinema Square, where they live, they can see neither Taliban nor Afghan forces," he said. "However, because they can see the Afghan flag over the square, they think the government must control the territory."

"People living in Kunduz are still fearful and waiting to see if the endless struggle will really end and they can go back to their normal life," he said.

[Source: By Matthew Rosenberg and Alissa J. Rubino, The New York Times, Washington, 05Oct15]

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small logoThis document has been published on 06Oct15 by the Equipo Nizkor and Derechos Human Rights. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.