A U.S. warplane attacked a medical charity's hospital in Afghanistan last month after its crew mistook it for a nearby government compound taken over by the Taliban in a "tragic mistake," a U.S. official said Wednesday.
"This tragedy was the direct result of avoidable human error," U.S. Army Gen. John Campbell, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, said at a news conference from Kabul, adding that the mistake was "compounded by systems and procedural failures."
Some of the people most closely involved in the attack have been suspended from their duties, Campbell said, but he did not specify how many.
Campbell's account of the mistaken air attack echoed an investigation report obtained earlier Wednesday by The Associated Press, which said the crew of the U.S. AC-130 gunship relied on a physical description of the compound provided by Afghan forces, leading the crew to attack the wrong target. It said the intended target, thought to be under Taliban control and being used in part as a prison, was 450 yards away from the hospital.
The attack on Oct. 3 in the city of Kunduz killed at least 31 civilians and injured 28 others.
"Multiple errors occurred that resulted in the misidentification" of the Doctors Without Borders trauma center, Campbell said, including a failure to properly brief the warplane crew before their mission and technical errors aboard the plane.
Investigators found no evidence that the crew or the U.S. Special Forces commander on the ground who authorized the strike knew the targeted compound was a hospital at the time of the attack.
Those who have been suspended will be subject to investigation under the military justice or administrative discipline systems, Campbell said.
The accidental strike has prompted a thorough review of targeting and planning, Brig. Gen. Wilson Shoffner, spokesman for the Resolute Support Mission in Afghanistan, added.
The plane fired 211 shells at the compound over a 25-minute period before commanders realized the mistake and ordered a halt, the report said.
The investigation, known officially as a combined civilian casualty assessment, was led by U.S. Army Major General William Hickman and was comprised of representatives of NATO and the Afghan government. It was charged with determining facts surrounding the incident but not to assign blame.
A subsequent U.S. military investigation was done to look further at the case and to determine accountability. Officials said they intended to release a summary of that probe but not the full report, which is about 3,000 pages.
Doctors Without Borders, known by its French initials MSF, said earlier this month in its own report that several doctors and nurses were killed immediately, and patients who could not move burned to death in the ensuing fire. Hospital staff members made 18 attempts to call or text U.S. and Afghan authorities, the group said.
People fleeing the main building were cut down by gunfire that appeared to track their movements, while a patient trying to escape in a wheelchair was killed by shrapnel, the MSF report said.
The group did not immediately respond to Campbell's press conference.
President Barack Obama has apologized for the attack, one of the worst incidents of civilian casualties in the 14-year history of the U.S war effort.
Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, and Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., Chairman and Ranking Member of the House Armed Services Committee, said in a statement they had been briefed by Campbell on the strike.
"It is clear that process failures on multiple levels were involved. We will continue to oversee the investigation as it proceeds, and work closely with our forces in Afghanistan to ensure this tragedy is not repeated."