Obama Apologizes to Doctors Without Borders for Hospital Airstrike

  • In this Oct. 2, 2015, file photo, President Barack Obama takes questions from members of the media in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, File)
    In this Oct. 2, 2015, file photo, President Barack Obama takes questions from members of the media in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, File)
  • Fires burn in part of the Medecins Sans Frontieres hospital in Kanduz, Afghanistan, after it was hit by an air strike on October 3, 2015 Photo: Medecins Sans Frontieres via Agence France Press
    Fires burn in part of the Medecins Sans Frontieres hospital in Kanduz, Afghanistan, after it was hit by an air strike on October 3, 2015 Photo: Medecins Sans Frontieres via Agence France Press

President Obama apologized to Doctors without Borders Wednesday for the U.S. bombing of the Kunduz hospital but did not endorse the medical aid group's call for an independent and international investigation of what it calls a "war crime."

Previous statements from Obama, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and Army Gen. John Campbell, the commander of U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan, had expressed condolences for a "tragic incident" but stopped short of an apology for the Special Operations airstrike on Oct. 3 that killed 22, including 12 Doctors Without Borders staffers and three children.

"The president offered up his personal apology" in a phone call to Joanne Liu, international president of Doctors Without Borders (Medicins Sans Frontieres, or MSF), said White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest. "When we make a mistake, we own up to it," he said.

"The president assured Dr. Liu that the Department of Defense investigation currently underway would provide a transparent, thorough and objective accounting of the facts and circumstances of the incident and, if necessary, the president would implement changes that would make tragedies like this one less likely to occur in the future," Earnest said.

Obama also phoned Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to express "his condolences for the Afghan civilians killed and injured" in the bombing of the field hospital, the White House said in a readout of the call.

MSF officials have said that the GPS coordinates of the hospital were known to the U.S. and that MSF staffers in the hospital repeatedly called their U.S. contacts pleading for the airstrikes to be called off.

"If it's necessary to hold individuals accountable, that will be done" in the aftermath of the attack that MSF has said continued for more than an hour in the early morning hours last Saturday, Earnest said.

At a White House press briefing, Earnest did not answer directly when asked if Obama would support an international investigation while stressing that the Department of Defense (DOD) was conducting a "thorough and transparent" Article 15-6 fact-finding investigation.

Campbell has named Army Brig. Richard C. Kim to head the fact-finding investigation. Campbell told the Senate Armed Services Committee Tuesday that Kim was on the ground in the Kunduz area and was seeking to interview MSF officials in the area.

Campbell said he expected to make public a preliminary report from Kim within 30 days. An Article 15-6 investigation can potentially lead to court martial charges.

Liu told reporters Wednesday that MSF had a working assumption that a "possible war crime" was committed in the airstrike that Campbell said was called in by a Special Forces unit on the ground near the hospital and was carried out by an Air Force Special Operations AC-130 gunship.

"The U.S. attack on the MSF hospital in Kunduz was the biggest loss of life for our organization in an airstrike," Liu said. "Tens of thousands of people in Kunduz can no longer receive medical care now when they need it most. Today we say enough. Even war has rules."

Earnest said he was not legally qualified to offer opinions on what constituted a war crime, but he suggested that it was a matter of intent. He said the U.S. military "goes to great lengths to avoid civilian casualties" but "in this case there was a mistake."

The Oct. 3 airstrike came as Kunduz was under siege by the Taliban. Insurgents overran the northern city of about 300,000 on Oct. 28 and the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), backed by U.S. Special Operations trainers and advisers, were fighting to take it back.

Campbell, who was scheduled to testify before the House Armed Services Committee on Thursday, has said that the Afghan forces requested the airstrike but stressed that it was a Special Forces unit on the ground that made the call to the AC-130 gunship.

"To be clear, the decision to provide aerial fires was a U.S. decision made within the U.S. chain of command" and the hospital "was mistakenly struck. We would never intentionally target a protected medical facility," Campbell said at the Senate hearing Tuesday.

Jason Cone, the U.S. executive director of MSF, told CNN that "We certainly are willing to cooperate with a Department of Defense investigation" of the attack but a separate investigation with "an independent and international character to it" was need to provide credibility. Until then, MSF would consider the airstrike a war crime and it was up to the U.S. "to prove otherwise," Cone said.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at richard.sisk@military.com

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