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Independent fact-finding mission urged over deadly Kunduz strike

Published 07/10/2015

A man donates money at a tent of the Afghanistan 3rd Trend, a civil organisation to help displaced people from Kunduz (AP)
A man donates money at a tent of the Afghanistan 3rd Trend, a civil organisation to help displaced people from Kunduz (AP)

Doctors Without Borders has called for an independent and unprecedented fact-finding mission to investigate a US air strike on a hospital run by the medical aid group in Afghanistan that killed at least 22 people.

The group, which believes Saturday's air strike in Kunduz may have been a war crime, appealed to the US, Afghanistan and other countries to mobilise a little-known commission to look into the tragedy.

The aid group, also known by its French language acronym MSF, says it above all wants to ensure respect of international humanitarian law after the most deadly air strike in its history.

A dozen MSF staffers and 10 patients were killed in the hospital air strike amid fighting between government forces and Taliban rebels in the north-eastern city.

The US military has already vowed to conduct an investigation and says the air strike was a mistake.

MSF international president Joanne Liu called for an impartial and independent probe of the facts and circumstances of the attack, "particularly given the inconsistencies in the US and Afghan accounts of what happened over recent days".

"We cannot rely on only internal military investigations by the US, Nato and Afghan forces," she said.

MSF wants to mobilise the International Humanitarian Fact-Finding Commission, based in the Swiss capital of Bern. It is made up of diplomats, legal experts, doctors and at least three former military officials from nine European countries, including Britain and Russia.

Fully created after the Gulf War in 1991, the commission has never deployed a fact-finding mission.

Ms Liu said Doctors Without Borders is "working on the assumption of a possible war crime", but said its real goal is to establish facts about the incident and the chain of command, and clear up the rules of operation for all humanitarian organisations in conflict zones.

The weekend strike "was not just an attack on our hospital, it was an attack on the Geneva Conventions. This cannot be tolerated", she told reporters.

The US air strikes have all but shattered the humanitarian aid response in Kunduz, causing MSF - whose hospital was the primary medical facility in the region - and other aid groups to suspend their operations there.

MSF, a Nobel Peace Prize-winning organisation that provides medical aid in conflict zones, is awaiting responses to letters it sent on Tuesday to 76 countries that signed Article 90 of the additional protocol to the Geneva Conventions, seeking to mobilise the 15-member commission. The Conventions, whose roots date to 1864, lay out rules on the conduct of armed conflict notably over protecting non-combatants - including civilians, aid workers, medical personnel and prisoners of war.

For the commission to be mobilised, a single country would have to call for the fact-finding mission, and the US and Afghanistan - which are not signatories - must also give their consent for one to go forward. MSF says it has had no response yet from the US or any other countries.

MSF legal director Francoise Saulnier said it was "difficult to activate politically something that puts countries face to face" and would require the "good will" of some. However, she noted the importance of setting a precedent in application of humanitarian law, and ensuring that the never-used commission - which could act in any number of conflict zones in the world today - has a role in that.

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