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Doctors Without Borders Director: U.S.-Allied Forces To Blame For Attack

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Doctors Without Borders Director: U.S.-Allied Forces To Blame For Attack

Middle East

Doctors Without Borders Director: U.S.-Allied Forces To Blame For Attack

Doctors Without Borders Director: U.S.-Allied Forces To Blame For Attack

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The international medical aid group Doctors Without Borders is blaming U.S-allied forces for a deadly attack on one of its hospitals in Afghanistan. NPR's Michel Martin talks with the executive director of Doctors Without Borders, Jason Cone, about the latest developments in the incident.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Doctors Without Borders, the international medical aid group, blames the U.S. military for airstrikes that killed patients and medical staff yesterday at their hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan. Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, said a joint investigation is underway with U.S. forces. And President Obama said in a statement that he expects a full accounting from the Department of Defense of the circumstances surrounding the bombing. U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter had this today to reporters traveling with him to Spain.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

SECRETARY OF DEFENCE ASH CARTER: It may take some time to get the facts, but we will get the facts. And we will be full and transparent about sharing them.

MARTIN: Earlier today, I spoke with Jason Cone. He's the executive director for Doctors Without Borders, which is known internationally by the French acronym MSF, and I began by offering him my condolences on the loss of his colleagues.

JASON CONE: Thank you for your condolences.

MARTIN: May I ask what you heard from them? What is their state of mind? Have you been able to speak to anyone there?

CONE: Yeah. Our teams have been quite traumatized, as you can imagine. And I can tell you as of now, actually, we've lost 12 of our staff. These are colleagues that have been working with us for years; running this hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan since 2011. And I'm also - sadly have to report that the toll of our patients has reached 10. So all told, we have 22 deaths related to this bombing, including three children. So it's one of the darkest couple of days in our organization's history, and we're disgusted with what has happened. We're under the clear presumption that a war crime has been committed, and we're demanding that a full and transparent investigation into the event be conducted by an independent international body. We respect the statements by President Obama, the secretary of defense, but we feel very strongly given the nature of the events that relying only on an internal investigation by a party to the conflict would be wholly insufficient.

MARTIN: And when you say due to the nature of the events, what do you mean and who would you consider a credible international body to investigate this?

CONE: The nature of the events being that over the past week, we had made clear the exact GPS coordinates of our health facilities in the Kunduz compound to coalition forces, to Afghan forces, to Taliban and to U.S. officials, both in Washington and Kabul and in both the civilian and military leadership. The hospital was full of patients. That was widely known. We had close to 200 staff and patients that were at the hospital at the time of the attack. I want to reiterate that the main hospital building where medical personnel were caring for patients was repeatedly and very precisely hit during each aerial raid while the rest of the compound was left mostly untouched. So we see this as a targeted event.

MARTIN: So you see it as a targeted event and not collateral damage as has been suggested or a mistake - or possibly a mistake. You think it was deliberate. Is that your suggestion?

CONE: We know that there was a targeting of specific buildings within the compound and that there's really no excuse for any group involved in the conflict to not acknowledge that this was a civilian medical facility providing care to hundreds of wounded in Kunduz over the last week.

MARTIN: To that end, Mr. Cone, I have to ask you - there are reports from American authorities that suggest that they were, in fact, taking fire from this area, and Afghan Ministry of Defense has said publicly that Taliban fighters were using the hospital building as a human shield. Is that true?

CONE: I can report that not a single member of our staff reported any fighting inside the MSF hospital compound prior to the U.S. airstrike on Saturday morning. And I just want to reiterate that point. We do not run hospitals around the world allowing combatants to enter our facilities and militarize them. That would be a red line for us. It puts both our patients and our staff at risk. We would never accept that under any circumstances. We work in countless countries; whether it's Yemen, Syria and many other countries at war. And this is something we've been doing for 40-plus years.

MARTIN: And if the Taliban were, in fact, using the hospital as a human shield, would you have had the capacity to remove them?

CONE: We would be suspending operations immediately. I mean, this is, as I said, is not an acceptable circumstance in which we can work. We make this clear to combatants. We're not going to be able to push armed individuals out of the facility, but we're certainly not going to operate. We are not going to be working. We're not going to maintain a hospital running that is being used by combatants for a military purpose. The sole purpose of our facilities is to provide impartial medical care.

MARTIN: Before we let you go - and I thank you for speaking with us - I noted this earlier that President Obama issued a statement offering his condolences to those who survived the attack and gave assurances that there is a Defense Department investigation of the incident under way - or NATO investigation. You had said earlier you wanted independent international body to investigate that. Do I take it from that that you don't consider a Defense Department investigation to be credible or likely to yield a full accounting? Is that the implication of your statement?

CONE: Our concern is that there is an independent, impartial group of individuals that are investigating this case. But I don't think it is reasonable enough that we can be satisfied with purely a Department of Defense investigation in this matter. It needs to be individuals who are not conflicted on the outcomes of the investigation. And I think that is a critical element to this and that the outcomes of the investigation are made available and are transparent. Look, we did everything we are expected to do as an organization. We provided countless amount of information about potential loss of civilian and medical personnel to attacks on a hospital that was clearly providing impartial medical care for the past week and for years before that. This was a known structure, and for that reason, we have to presume until otherwise that this act is both a great violation of humanitarian law and can rise to the level of a war crime until we have an independent investigation that tells us otherwise.

MARTIN: Jason Cone is the executive director of Doctors Without Borders, known as MSF internationally. He spoke with us today from Tokyo, Japan where he's traveling. Mr. Cone, thank you for speaking with us.

CONE: Thank you.

MARTIN: NPR asked the Pentagon to comment on the position of Doctors Without Borders. So far, we have not received a response.

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