WASHINGTON Afghan forces asked for U.S. air support while fighting the Taliban in Kunduz shortly before an air strike resulted in the deaths of civilians there, the American commander of international forces in Afghanistan said on Monday.
U.S. Army General John Campbell fell short of squarely acknowledging U.S. responsibility for an air strike that killed 22 people in an Afghan hospital run by aid group Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) on Saturday.
MSF reiterated its call for an independent investigation into the incident, though the White House said on Monday it was confident ongoing probes by the U.S. military, NATO, and Afghan security officials would provide a full account of the circumstances surrounding the strike.
Campbell said U.S. forces were not under direct fire in the incident and the air strike had not been called on their behalf, contrary to previous statements from the U.S. military.
"We have now learned that on October 3 Afghan forces advised that they were taking fire from enemy positions and asked for air support from U.S. forces," Campbell said in a briefing with reporters. "An air strike was then called to eliminate the Taliban threat, and several civilians were accidentally struck."
In a statement on Monday, MSF General Director Christopher Stokes said Campbell's comments amounted to trying to pass responsibility for the strike to the Afghan government.
"The reality is the U.S. dropped those bombs," the statement said. "The U.S. hit a huge hospital full of wounded patients and MSF staff. The U.S. military remains responsible for the targets it hits, even though it is part of a coalition. There can be no justification for this horrible attack."
U.S. Army Brigadier General Richard Kim is the senior investigator on the incident and is in Kunduz now, Campbell said. The White House said NATO will also conduct its own investigation, in addition to a third, joint probe by the U.S. military and Afghan security officials.
"If errors were committed, we'll acknowledge them," Campbell said. "We'll hold those responsible accountable, and we'll take steps to ensure mistakes are not repeated."
Responding to earlier calls by MSF for an international probe, Campbell did not close the door to an outside investigation.
"If there's other investigations out there that need to go on, I'll make sure that we coordinate those as well," Campbell said.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said on Monday that President Barack Obama has confidence in the three investigations to provide a "full accounting."
"His expectation is that details won't be...whitewashed...so that if it's necessary to take steps to prevent something like this from ever happening again, that those reforms are implemented promptly and effectively," Earnest said.
Campbell declined to comment on whether the United States had called a pause to air strikes, but said he had not suspended "train, advise, and assist" support from U.S. forces to the Afghans.
Campbell said he expected a preliminary report on the incident "very shortly, in the next couple of days."
(Additional reporting by Julia Edwards and Roberta Rampton in Washington; Editing by Bill Trott, Jonathan Oatis and Chizu Nomiyama)