Day after Obama apology, Doctors Without Borders presses its demand for thorough probe

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KABUL, Afghanistan — A day after President Barack Obama apologized for a tragic U.S. airstrike that killed at least 22 people at a hospital run by Doctors Without Borders in northern Afghanistan, the medical charity said Thursday it is continuing to press its demand for an independent investigation of the incident.

The Oct. 3 airstrike took place as Afghan forces were fighting to retake the strategic northern city of Kunduz, which was overrun and briefly held last week by the Taliban. The insurgents, who have been massing around the city for months, launched a multi-pronged attack that took authorities by surprise.

Obama on Wednesday apologized to the organization and said the U.S. would examine military procedures to look for better ways to prevent such incidents.

But scarce details on the erroneous strike have only fueled growing condemnation by MSF, as the charity is known under its French acronym, and other aid groups. Along with a dozen hospital staffers, 10 patients were also killed in the strike, which is likely to complicate delicate U.S. efforts in Afghanistan.

Speaking to reporters on Thursday in Kabul, MSF's general director, Christopher Stokes, reiterated the group's demand for the probe, saying it would be important and a precedent for non-government organizations working in conflict zones worldwide.

Stokes said MSF wanted the Swiss-based International Humanitarian Fact-Finding Commission — which is made up of diplomats, legal experts, doctors and some former military officials from nine European countries, including Britain and Russia — "to get the facts of what happened, the truth."

Created after the Gulf War in 1991, the IHFFC has never deployed a fact-finding mission.

Stokes said MSF — a Nobel Peace Prize-winning organization that provides medical aid in conflict zones — is awaiting responses to letters sent Tuesday to 76 countries that signed the additional protocol to the Geneva Conventions, asking to mobilize the 15-member commission.

For the IHFFC to be mobilized, a single country would have to call for the fact-finding mission, and the U.S. and Afghanistan — which are not signatories — must also give their consent.

"It would show a distinct lack of courage if none of the 76 signatories come forward," Stokes said.

On the ground in Kunduz, the MSF hospital was no longer operational, putting a severe burden on the city. Of the 105 patients who were there at the time of the airstrike, nine have yet to be accounted for; and of a total of 461 staff, 24 are still missing, said Guilhem Molinie, MSF's representative in Afghanistan.

MSF believes there are still 24 bodies in the debris of the building, he added. Three children among the 10 patients who perished were members of the same family, admitted the night before the bombing after their car came under fire, Molinie added.

Government forces continued to battle Thursday to clear insurgents from Kunduz areas. Humanitarian supplies were still not reaching the city in adequate quantities, according to Sarwar Hussaini, a provincial police spokesman. Police were helping with some food distribution, he added.

House-to-house searches are continuing as securing forces seek to eliminate remaining pockets of insurgents hidden in the city, said provincial police chief Mohammad Qasim Janghalbagh. He said searches had led to the arrest on Thursday of 13 armed Taliban.

Some roads into Kunduz have reopened but the Taliban have been hijacking trucks delivering food and medicines, said civil society activist Zabihullah Majidi. He said medicines purchased with money raised by civil society groups have been destroyed by Taliban on the road from Balkh province, while 150 cartons made it through.

The U.N.'s office in Kabul said Thursday that the humanitarian situation in Kunduz is deteriorating, with many residents lacking "access to food and water." There were conflicting reports on whether the airport, the scene of fierce battles when Taliban overran the city, was open.

According to U.N. estimates, there were up to 150,000 people remaining in Kunduz, a city with a population of 300,000.

Associated Press writer Humayoon Babur in Kabul, Afghanistan, contributed to this story.

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