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Pressure for independent inquiry of deadly US hospital attack builds

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Pressure is mounting on the United States Government to agree to an independent inquiry into its attack on a hospital in Afghanistan that that left 22 people dead following the activation of a rarely-used international investigative body.

The International Humanitarian Fact-Finding Commission (IHFFC), established under the Geneva Conventions, has written to both the US and Afghanistan governments to offer its services for an independent inquiry following a complaint from medical charity Medicins Sans Frontieres, (MSF) which operated the hospital.

US President Barack Obama has issued a public apology for the bombing, and his Government has initiated its own inquiry. But Mr Obama has been steadfast in resisting calls for arms-length investigation, and is considered unlikely to accept the Commission’s offer.

Neither the US nor Afghanistan are member states of the Commission, which has no power to compel their participation.

“It is for the concerned Governments to decide whether they wish to rely on the IHFFC,” the Commission said. “The IHFFC can only act based on the consent of the concerned State or States”.

President Obama has assured that his Government would conduct a “transparent, thorough and objective” inquiry into the tragedy.

But MSF claims the attack could amount to a war crime and must be investigated independently.

“We have received apologies and condolences, but this is not enough. We are still in the dark about why a well-known hospital full of patients and medical staff was repeatedly bombarded for more than an hour,” said Dr Joanne Liu, MSF International President. “We need to understand what happened and why.”

Dr Liu said her organisation was determined to uncover how the attack had occurred, and to hold those responsible to account.

“If we let this go, as if it was a non-event, we are basically giving a blank cheque to any countries who are at war,” Dr Liu said. “If we don’t safeguard that medical space for us to do our activities, then it is impossible to work in other contexts like Syria, South Sudan, like Yemen.

Twenty-two people, including 12 MSF staff, were killed in the hour-long US airstrike, which was called in as Afghan Army units fought to regain control of the city from Taliban insurgents.

MSF nurse Lajos Zoltan Jecs survived the attack and detailed scenes of carnage at the hospital, which was filled with patients at the time.

“I cannot describe what was inside. There are no words for how terrible it was. In the Intensive Care Unit six patients were burning in their beds,” Mr Jecs said.

He told of how surviving medical staff – many badly shaken and traumatised by the blasts – worked frantically to save patients as well as their own colleagues.

“We did an urgent surgery for one of our doctors. Unfortunately he died there on the office table. We did our best, but it wasn’t enough,” he said. “We saw our colleagues dying. Our pharmacist – I was just talking to him last night and planning the stocks – and then he died there in our office.”

President Obama called Dr Liu to apologise for the attack after the US military admitted responsibility.

The attack occurred despite the fact that MSF had given all warring parties the GPS coordinates of the hospital.

Outrage over the attack was heightened when the US initially appeared to claim it was a necessary and legitimate use of force, before later characterising it as a mistake.

MSF said that “any statement implying that Afghan and US forces knowingly targeted a fully functioning hospital – with more than 180 staff and patients inside – razing it to the ground, would be tantamount to an admission of a war crime,” MSF Australia President Dr Stewart Condon and Executive Director Paul McPhun said. “There can be no justification for this abhorrent attack.”

“Medecins Sans Frontieres reiterates its demand for a full, transparent and independent international investigation to provide answers and accountability to those impacted by this tragic event.”

Adrian Rollins