President Obama personally apologized Wednesday in an Oval Office phone call to the head of Doctors Without Borders for the U.S. military bombing of a charity hospital in Afghanistan that killed at least 22 patients and medical personnel working for the international aid agency.
“The United States, when we make a mistake, we’re honest about it. We own up to it,” said White House press secretary Josh Earnest.
A day earlier, the White House stopped short of a public apology, citing three ongoing investigations into the Saturday incident.
The hospital was bombed as U.S. forces were trying to help Afghans retake the northern town of Kunduz from Taliban militants.
Mr. Earnest said Wednesday that Mr. Obama called Dr. Joanne Liu, president of Doctors Without Borders, to “apologize and express his condolences.”
He assured her that the Pentagon would conduct a thorough investigation into the bombing.
Mr. Obama also called Afghan President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani to apologize, the White House said.
Dr. Liu indicated in a statement that the president’s apology wasn’t enough.
“We reiterate our [request] that the U.S. government consent to an independent investigation led by the International Humanitarian Fact-Finding Commission to establish what happened in Kunduz, how it happened and why it happened,” she said.
The Geneva-based Doctors Without Borders has openly questioned U.S. military claims that the attack was a mistake committed in the fog of war.
The bombing “was not just an attack on our hospital; it was an attack on the Geneva Conventions,” Dr. Liu told reporters in a news briefing.
“If we let this go, as if it was a nonevent, we are basically giving a blank check to any countries who are at war. 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,” she said.
Army Gen. John F. Campbell, commander of 9,800 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, said the airstrike in Kunduz was meant to defend U.S. forces under fire from the Taliban.
Multiple news agencies reported that Afghan troops have re-established control over the main square in Kunduz, although the battle for the strategic city is by no means won. Analysts say the Taliban scored a propaganda victory with their brief seizure of the city in a part of the country where the group was not thought to be a major threat.
Sarwar Hussaini, a spokesman for the Kunduz provincial police chief, told The Associated Press on Wednesday that the government had regained control of the main square.
The square traded hands several times, with each side tearing down the other’s flag and hoisting its own.
“The national flag is flying over the main square, shops have reopened and life is returning to normal,” Mr. Hussaini said, adding that main roads running east and south had opened and traffic was starting to flow.
However, some Taliban fighters remained in hiding in residential areas of Kunduz as operations continued to clear them from the city, said a spokesman for Mr. Ghani.
“Afghan forces have control of Kunduz city; however, some scattered elements of the enemy are still hiding in the residential areas inside people’s houses,” deputy spokesman Zafar Hashemi said. “This could at times slow down the speed of our military operations as we put the utmost effort into not harming civilians.”
⦁ This article is based in part on wire service reports.