The International medical charity Doctors Without Borders said on Sunday that it had withdrawn from the northern Afghan city of Kunduz after a deadly airstrike destroyed its hospital and killed 22 people, as the U.S. and Afghan governments vowed to get to the bottom of the carnage.
The humanitarian crisis in the city, which briefly fell to the Taliban last week before the government launched a counteroffensive, has been growing increasingly dire, with shops shuttered because of ongoing fighting and roads made impassable by mines planted by insurgents.
“All critical patients have been referred to other health facilities and no MSF staff are working in our hospital,” said Kate Stegeman, the communications manager for Doctors Without Borders, using the French acronym for the organization.
“Some of our medical staff have gone to work in two hospitals where some of the wounded have been taken,” she added.
Investigations are continuing into the bombing of the hospital on Saturday, which killed at least 22 people. The charity announced Sunday that three injured hospital patients had died, bringing the total to 10 in addition to 12 dead hospital staffers.
The circumstances surrounding the incident remain murky. The charity said in a statement Saturday that “all indications” pointed to the international military coalition as responsible for the bombing, and Army Col. Brian Tribus, a spokesman for American forces in Afghanistan, said a U.S. airstrike “in the Kunduz vicinity” around 2:15 a.m. Saturday morning “may have resulted in collateral damage to a nearby medical facility.”
Afghan officials said helicopter gunships returned fire from Taliban fighters who were hiding in the hospital, and AP video footage of the burned out compound in the east of Kunduz city shows automatic weapons, including rifles and at least one machine gun, on windowsills. But Stegeman said there were no insurgents in the facility at the time of the bombing.
President Ashraf Ghani said a joint investigation was underway with U.S. Forces and President Barack Obama said he expected a full accounting of the circumstances surrounding the bombing.
The Taliban seized Kunduz last Monday but have since withdrawn from much of the city after a government counterattack. Sporadic battles continue as troops attempt to clear remaining pockets of militants.
The Taliban’s brief seizure of Kunduz marked the insurgent group’s biggest foray into a major urban area since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion ended their rule.
Afghan forces have been struggling to combat the Taliban since the U.S. and NATO shifted to a support and training role at the end of last year, officially ending their combat mission in the war-torn country.
A Kunduz resident who gave his name only as Habibullah said the Afghan flag was flying over the central square — contrary to reports that it had been retaken by the insurgents. Gun battles were being fought in three districts on the outskirts of town, he said.
Acting provincial Gov. Hamidullah Danishi said most of the insurgents had fled the city and that those still standing their ground appeared to be what he called “foreigners,” non-Afghans who have been boosting Taliban forces in the north of the country for some months. Officials have said that many of them are from Central Asian states, members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.
Danishi said that 480 Taliban fighters had been killed as of Friday, and around 300 wounded. He put casualties among Afghan security forces at between 30 and 35 killed or wounded.
Meanwhile thousands of civilian residents remain trapped inside the disputed city. Militants blocked and mined roads as soon as they entered Kunduz to prevent people from leaving and to thwart a government assault. Local television showed live footage of police officers handing bread to children, one of whom said he had not eaten for three days.
The deputy head of the Afghan National Disaster Management Authority, Aslam Sayas, said he was aware of the growing humanitarian crisis inside Kunduz. “We are waiting for the security situation to improve to give us an opportunity to reach those needy people,” he said.
Saad Mukhar, the Kunduz provincial public health director, estimates that more than 70 people have been killed and more than 500 wounded in the city since the fighting began.
Report by the Associated Press.
Michael Kugleman on the airstrikes in Kunduz
For more on the attacks in Kunduz, CCTV America’s Susan Roberts spoke to Michael Kugelman. He specializes in U.S.-South Asia relations at the Woodrow Wilson center.