Strike on Afghan hospital classed 'not a war crime'

  • 30/04/2016
U.S. Army General Joseph Votel, commander, U.S. Central Command, briefs the media at the Pentagon in Washington (Reuters)
U.S. Army General Joseph Votel, commander, U.S. Central Command, briefs the media at the Pentagon in Washington (Reuters)

A US military investigation has concluded that a deadly air strike in Afghanistan last year that destroyed a hospital run by Doctors Without Borders did not amount to a war crime but was caused by a number of factors, including human errors.

Forty-two people were killed and 37 were wounded during an October 3 strike that destroyed a hospital run by the international medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres.

"The investigation concluded that certain personnel failed to comply with the rules of engagement and the law of armed conflict, however, the investigation did not conclude that these failures amounted to a war crime," General Joseph Votel, commander of US Central Command, told reporters on Friday.

Votel said it was not a war crime because none of the service members were aware that they were striking a hospital.

The report into the deadly air strike said that condolence payments had been made to more than 170 individuals and families and US$5.7 million (NZ$8.13 million) had been approved to reconstruct the MSF facility.

Votel said that US$3000 had been paid for those injured, and US$6000 for those killed.

Votel added that the investigation found that the incident was caused by "unintentional human errors, process errors, and equipment failures."

The report added that fatigue and "high operational tempo" were also factors.

Votel said that even though there were fewer US forces on the ground compared to previous years, he was comfortable with the ability of the military to evaluate risk factors.

Roughly 9800 US troops are in Afghanistan, but under the current plan that will fall to 5500 troops from 2017 for training and counter-terrorism operations.

On Thursday, Reuters reported that the US military has taken disciplinary action against 16 service members over the air strike, including a general.

The report said that General John Campbell, who was then head of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, took action against 12 personnel.

"The actions included suspension and removal from command, letters of reprimand, formal counselling and extensive retraining," the report said.

Doctors Without Borders says last year's US air strike on the organisation's hospital in Afghanistan remains "incomprehensible," even after the Pentagon's release of an official report on the incident.

Forty-two people were killed and dozens more wounded in the October 3, 2015 bombing in Kunduz.

"It is incomprehensible that, under the circumstances described by the US, the attack was not called off," Medecins Sans Frontieres president Meinie Nicolai said on Friday.

The US military says the bombardment was not a war crime because there was no intent to target the hospital.

The bombing of the MSF clinic was the result of "a combination of human and technical errors," General Joseph Votel, head of the US Central Command, said during a press conference earlier on Friday announcing the findings of the Pentagon's investigation.

The crew of the AC-130 fixed-wing gunship that carried out the attack confused the MSF clinic with a Taliban position about 400 metres away, according to the Defense Department report.

The bombardment continued despite frantic telephone calls from MSF personnel to US military officials in Kabul and Washington DC.

"Today's briefing amounts to an admission of an uncontrolled military operation in a densely populated urban area, during which US forces failed to follow the basic laws of war," Nicolai said hours after Votel talked to reporters.

Votel confirmed that 16 military personnel would be subject to disciplinary action in connection with the bombing, though MSF dismissed those sanctions as "administrative punishments".

"The lack of meaningful accountability sends a worrying signal to warring parties, and is unlikely to act as a deterrent against future violations of the rules of war," MSF said.

Reuters / AAP