Afghan special forces raid medical aid group MSF's hospital

KUNDUZ (Reuters) - Afghan special forces raided a hospital run by medical aid group Médecins Sans Frontières in northern Afghanistan, in search of a suspected Al Qaeda operative being treated there, a commander of the elite force said on Thursday.

Raids on hospitals are rare because they are protected by international law and those run by foreign aid agencies in Afghanistan provide crucial support to war victims, who may travel for days to get assistance.

It was unclear if Wednesday’s raid by a contingent of special forces from the capital, Kabul, had succeeded in capturing its target, Kunduz special forces commander Abdullah told Reuters.

“I was told he was an al Qaeda member being treated at the MSF hospital,” Abdullah said.

The northern city of Kunduz has been on the front line of the increasingly bloody conflict for months, with Taliban forces overrunning two districts in the province and striking checkpoints close to the city.

The French aid group said its hospital was temporarily closed to new patients after armed soldiers had entered and behaved violently towards staff.

“This incident demonstrates a serious lack of respect for the medical mission, which is safeguarded under international humanitarian law,” MSF said in a statement.

A staff member who works for the aid group said, “The foreign doctors tried to stop the Afghan Special Operations guys, but they went in anyway, searching the hospital.”

He declined to be identified because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

Most foreign troops left Afghanistan last year when the combat mission ended and only a small NATO contingent remains to train Afghan security forces. Some U.S. troops are still engaged in fighting the Taliban insurgency and the remnants of al Qaeda.

This year, the coalition is tackling a new threat, the Islamic State, which has expanded its presence in Afghanistan, taking over territory previously controlled by the Taliban.

Violence has escalated across the country, and is taking a heavy toll of civilians, with more than 1,800 casualties recorded by the United Nations in the first three months of the year.

The French medical aid group returned to Afghanistan in 2009, after having pulled out of the country in July 2004, following the murder of five of its staff.

Its hospitals provide aid to war victims, regardless of which side they support or how they were injured.

In 2009, a Swedish aid group accused U.S. forces of violating humanitarian principles by raiding a hospital in Wardak province, west of Kabul.

Additional reporting by Hamid Shalizi in Kabul; writing by Jessica Donati; Editing by Clarence Fernandez