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  October 7, 2015

MSF Demands War Crime Probe in Afghanistan

Sune Engel Rasmussen, The Guardian reporter in Kabul, describes the local reaction to the bombing and questions the verification process that the US military exercises before bombing targets
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SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I'm Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore.

MSF trauma center that was bombed by the U.S. military in Kunduz, Afghanistan was the only such facility of its kind in Northeastern Afghanistan. In a strong-worded statement by Dr. Joanne Liu, president of MSF International, said: “Nothing can excuse violence against patients, medical workers, and health facilities. Under international humanitarian law, hospitals in conflict zones are protected spaces until proven otherwise. The events of last Saturday amount to an inexcusable violation of this law. We are working on the presumption of a war crime.” Further, MSF is calling for an independent investigation into the attack. The call is being taken up in a Twitter storm at MSF International, @MSF.

Now joining me to discuss the developments from Kabul, Afghanistan is Sune Engel Rasmussen. He is a freelance journalist and contributing correspondent with the Guardian. Sune, thank you so much for joining us today.


PERIES: What do we know thus far about the attack on the hospital on the ground there?

RASMUSSEN: Well, the attack occurred around 2:00 AM early Saturday morning local time, when a U.S. gunship, it seems to be a gunship that attacked this hospital compound in the middle of Kunduz city. It went on for, it's a little bit disputed how long it went on for. But it seems to have gone on for at least an hour, where at some point during the attack MSF contacted U.S. officials in Kabul and Washington, and informed them that the hospital was under fire. That took another 30 minutes for the military to stop their air strike. And when it was over the entire main building of the hospital was completely burned out. We know now that 22 people were killed, at least, including three children, including twelve staff members as well.

The U.S. say that they were--their explanations have changed quite a bit. But in the beginning they said they were firing in self defense. Then they said it was called in by Afghan forces. Now they say that it was called in by Afghan forces, but of course there's a chain of command, and there's a very rigorous vetting process, check process, I guess, when you launch an attack like this. So apparently there was some control also from the U.S. military, is what they're saying.

Afghan official say that the Taliban were firing from inside the compound. The interior ministry spokesman said that it was 10-15 terrorists firing from the main building of the hospital. The spokesman of the police in Kunduz said that there were terrorists firing from inside the compound. But this is something MSF has denied all along. They say that there's no reports of insurgents inside the compound. When I spoke to doctors a few hours after the attack that's also what they said, that there was no insurgents inside. And even if there had been, and this is what human rights activists point out, even if there had been inside, it's still against international law to fire directly at a medical facility.

So that's more or less where we stand now. The MSF is calling for, as you said, for an independent investigation. They think that with the U.S. investigating this incident, it is basically the U.S. and NATO and also the Afghan military investigating their own misconduct, and the allegations against themselves for a possible war crime.

PERIES: Now, Sune, this is not the first time that an MSF hospital has come under attack in Afghanistan, and this is also not the first time that the United States has made a mistake and taken direction from informants on the ground, warlords on the ground, and not checked it out themselves. Do they not have an obligation to do their independent verification of this before attacking, especially a hospital, violating international law?

RASMUSSEN: Well, that's also--what I mentioned before, I think the U.S. General John Campbell today has said that there is actually a verification process that kicks in when, when Afghan special forces or U.S. special forces on the ground call in an air strike. I think that verification process is something that the investigation is going to have to look at. For example, [MSF] have said that they had given the exact GPS coordinates for the hospital only four days prior to the attack. So a question is, why were those GPS coordinates not with the pilots, why were they not being considered? Or if they were indeed, how could this attack still happen?

But it's not like the U.S. military are taking orders from Afghan informants that are just random. If they're taking--if an air strike is being called in, [in an instance] like this from Afghans, it's probably Afghan special forces, and it'll be in close communication with American special forces on the ground. And that's what--they call them advisers, they're not necessarily meant to engage in combat. But I mean, their verification process that you mentioned is something that the investigation will have to look into. What went wrong, and was there some slips in that whole process.

PERIES: Now, what are the military [actors], the U.S. military on the ground saying about this in Afghanistan to the Afghans?

RASMUSSEN: I don't know what they're saying internally to the Afghans. They're not saying a lot in public. The only thing they've said are the statements that came out early Saturday morning, where they said they were investigating the incident, and there might have been collateral damage made to a nearby medical facility when the U.S. conducted an air strike in the vicinity of it. Then there was another statement later on Sunday, when they said they were still investigating, and then statements that the John Campbell, the general, the U.S. general, has made this week in the U.S., where he's said that--where we are now is that he said that it was a U.S. air strike, and there was a mistake, and they're looking into how the mistake could happen. But they really don't go into more detail than that.

PERIES: And what's the situation on the ground in terms of what the local media is saying, as well as how the people have received this attack?

RASMUSSEN: Well, it's a bit of mixed feeling. Some people are furious with the United States, and say that they don't understand how the Americans could fire at a hospital like this. Especially because everybody in the community in Kuduz knows the hospital. They know that MSF treat both warring parties on both sides equally. They treat everybody as a civilian. And this was the most advanced medical facility in the area. There's only a hospital of a certain standard in Kunduz. So I mean, this is [close] to the local community, and obviously in Kunduz they are infuriated. In Kabul you have officials saying one thing, but you also have some understanding among the people, I think, of the fact that you need to fight the Taliban. And there is some, what can you say, some, maybe not support for the U.S. in this, but there's a lot of blame being thrown at the Taliban, as well.

That depends on who you ask among the Afghan people. I think a lot of this is also caused by the Afghan media, who have, who have to a certain extent perpetuated the line from the Afghan officials that the Taliban were firing from inside the compound. So they are trying to shift some blame onto the Taliban. So it's a bit mixed among Afghans.

PERIES: And do you think there's any evidence of that?

RASMUSSEN: I don't have, I don't have any insight--I wasn't on the ground. But I mean, I know what MSF was saying. MSF say that everyone left their weapons outside the compound. And they shut the gates when the fighting was raging outside, late on Friday night. And I know that the Afghan officials who say that the Taliban were fighting inside could have an agenda in saying that. But I don't really have any, any proof either way, I think.

PERIES: Sune, I thank you so much for joining us today at this late hour. Appreciate it very much.

RASMUSSEN: Sure, you're welcome.

PERIES: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.


DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.


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