MSF says planes may have attacked staff fleeing Kunduz hospital

Damaged buildings are seen at the MSF hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan October 16, 2015. REUTERS/Stringer

KABUL (Reuters) - Medical aid group Medicins Sans Frontieres (MSF) said Thursday it was hard to believe a U.S. strike on an Afghan hospital last month was a mistake, as it had reports of fleeing people being shot from an aircraft. "All the information that we've provided so far shows that a mistake is quite hard to understand and believe at this stage," MSF General Director Christopher Stokes told reporters while presenting the group's internal report on the incident. The report said many staff described "seeing people being shot, most likely from the plane" as they tried to flee the main hospital building, which was under attack by U.S. military aircraft. At least 30 people were killed when the hospital in Kunduz was hit by a powerful U.S. attack aircraft on Oct. 3 while Afghan government forces were battling to regain control of the northern city from Taliban forces who had seized it days earlier. The United States has said the hospital was hit by accident and two separate investigations by the U.S. and NATO are underway. But the circumstances of the incident, one of the worst of its kind during the 14-year conflict, are still unclear. Stokes told reporters the organisation was still awaiting an explanation from the U.S. military. "From what we are seeing now, this action is illegal in the laws of war," Stokes said. "There are still many unanswered questions, including who took the final decision, who gave the targeting instructions for the hospital." Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, said MSF shared the report in advance with the U.S. Defence Department. "Since this tragic incident, we have worked closely with MSF to determine the facts surrounding it," he said in a statement, which did not address the report's specifics. "We are committed to conducting investigations that are thorough and transparent." The White House said U.S. President Barack Obama had been briefed on the MSF report. Several Afghan officials have suggested Taliban fighters were using the hospital as a base, a claim that MSF firmly rejects. It says the facility was under its control at all times and there were no armed fighters present either before or during the attack. The hospital was treating wounded combatants from both sides as well as civilians, but the group says it always maintained a strict policy of neutrality between the two sides. "Treating wounded combatants is not a crime," Stokes said. MSF says the site's location had been clearly communicated to both Afghan forces and the Taliban and it was clearly identifiable as a hospital. "That night, it was one of the few buildings with electrical power, it was fully lit up," Stokes said. He also said that inspections of the area around the hospital since the Taliban withdrew from Kunduz last month did not reveal signs of heavy fighting. MSF, called Doctors Without Borders in English, has revised the original casualty figure upwards and now says 30 people, including 13 staff members and three children, were killed during repeated attacks by the U.S. gunship. The U.S. investigation is headed by a U.S. general and two brigadier generals. A separate NATO casualty report into the incident, originally expected in October, has been delayed while the investigation continues, U.S. Defence Secretary Ash Carter announced last month. (Reporting by Michael Martina and Doina Chiacu, writing by James Mackenzie; editing by Tom Heneghan and Christian Plumb)