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Pentagon Says Afghan Hospital Strike Not A War Crime; 16 Soldiers Disciplined

The damaged Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz following an air strike in October 2015

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. military said a mistaken air barrage on an Afghan hospital that killed 42 people last October did not constitute a war crime and that 16 special operations soldiers had been disciplined, though none court-martialed.

The strike on the trauma center in Kunduz, operated by the international charity Doctors Without Borders (MSF), prompted widespread outrage as well as calls for an independent probe.

But the Defense Department rebuffed those calls, conducting its own investigation whose results were announced by U.S. Army General Joseph Votel at a Pentagon news briefing on April 29.

"The investigation ultimately concluded that this tragic incident was caused by a combination of human errors compounded by process and equipment failures," said Votel, who heads U.S. Central Command, which is responsible for U.S. military operations in Afghanistan and the region.

The soldiers who were disciplined received various punishments, he said, including letters of reprimand and being suspended from command.

None would face a court-martial, though often such reprimands end a soldier’s military career.

There was no immediate reaction to the Pentagon announcement, though MSF had called for the October 3, 2015 incident to be classified as a war crime and for criminal proceedings against the soldiers involved.

Votel said the hospital had been identified as a "no-strike" target ahead of time, but the personnel in the AC-130 gunship that was called in by U.S. ground forces did not know they were firing on a hospital.

He said a satellite radio on the plane had failed and that ground forces had been exhausted by several days of intense fighting as part of a joint effort with Afghan forces to retake Kunduz, which had fallen a few days earlier to Taliban fighters.

He said the hospital also resembled the physical description of the insurgent site that ground forces had radioed in for targeting.

Votel also said MSF officials contacted U.S. forces within 10 minutes of the attack's start, but that information was never relayed to the plane's crew and the attack continued for nearly 30 minutes.

"The investigation concluded that certain personnel failed to comply with the rules of engagement and the law of armed conflict, however, the investigation found that these failures did not amount to a war crime," he said.

Votel said the U.S. would pay up to $6,000 to relatives of the dead and $3,000 in compensation to those wounded, and that nearly $6 million had been earmarked for the medical facility in Kunduz.

The release of the U.S. investigation came just two days after another MSF-run medical facility in Aleppo, Syria, was hit by an air strike, killing 50 people. It wasn’t immediately clear who was responsible, though blame centered on Syrian government forces.

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    Mike Eckel

    Mike Eckel is a senior correspondent in Prague, where he reports on developments in Russia, Ukraine, and around the former Soviet Union, as well as news involving cybercrime and money laundering. Before joining RFE/RL in 2015, he worked for the Associated Press in Moscow. He has also reported and edited for The Christian Science Monitor, Al Jazeera America, Voice of America, and the Vladivostok News.