GENEVA (AP) — Doctors Without Borders called Wednesday for an independent fact-finding mission to investigate a U.S. airstrike on its hospital in Afghanistan that killed at least 22 people.
The group, which believes Saturday's airstrike in Kunduz may have been a war crime, appealed to the U.S., Afghanistan and other countries to mobilize a little-known commission to look into the tragedy.
The aid group, known by its French language acronym MSF, says it above all wants to ensure respect for international humanitarian law after the most deadly airstrike in its history. A dozen MSF staffers and 10 patients were killed in the hospital airstrike amid fighting between Afghan government forces and Taliban rebels in the northeastern city.
The U.S. military has already vowed to conduct an investigation and says the airstrike was a mistake.
MSF International President Joanne Liu called for an impartial and independent probe into the attack, "particularly given the inconsistencies in the U.S. and Afghan accounts of what happened over recent days.
"We cannot rely on only internal military investigations by the U.S., NATO and Afghan forces," she said.
U.S. President Barack Obama telephoned Liu Wednesday and apologized for the attack.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Obama offered condolences to the group's staff and pledged a "transparent, thorough and objective accounting of the facts."
"When the United States makes a mistake, we own up to it, we apologize where appropriate, and we are honest about what transpired," Earnest said. He described the call as a "heartfelt apology."
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon received a letter from MSF about its demand, and U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said Ban is "always in favor of accountability, and he looks forward to a transparent and impartial investigation of what happened in the hospital in Kunduz."
MSF wants to mobilize the International Humanitarian Fact-Finding Commission, based in the Swiss capital, Bern. It is made up of diplomats, legal experts, doctors and some former military officials from nine European countries, including Britain and Russia. Created after the Gulf War in 1991, the commission has never deployed a fact-finding mission.
Liu said MSF is "working on the assumption of a possible war crime," but said its real goal is to establish facts about the incident and the chain of command, and clear up the rules of operation for all humanitarian organizations in conflict zones.
The strike "was not just an attack on our hospital, it was an attack on the Geneva Conventions. This cannot be tolerated," she told reporters Wednesday.
The U.S. airstrikes have all but shattered the humanitarian aid response in Kunduz, causing MSF — whose hospital was the primary medical facility in the region — and other aid groups to suspend operations there.
MSF, a Nobel Peace Prize-winning organization that provides medical aid in conflict zones, is awaiting responses to letters it sent Tuesday to 76 countries that signed Article 90 of the additional protocol to the Geneva Conventions, seeking to mobilize the 15-member commission. The Conventions, whose roots date to 1864, lay out rules on the conduct of armed conflict, notably over protecting noncombatants.
For the commission 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 for one to go forward. MSF says it has had no response yet from any country.
Helen Durham, director of international law and policy at the International Committee of the Red Cross, said the commission could help "clarify the facts surrounding this tragic incident" and said that investigation could complement separate ones by the U.S., NATO and Afghanistan.
Zafar Hashemi, deputy spokesman for Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, said his government was committed to a full, transparent investigation of the hospital incident and "will fully cooperate with the investigation through appropriate channels agreed upon by our partners" in the NATO Resolute Support mission.
In Brussels, U.S. Ambassador to NATO Douglas Lute said the United States was open to working closely with MSF, but added: "I'm not sure where we'll go in terms of any further investigations."
U.S. officials in Washington have previously said they do not believe an international investigation is needed.
Lynne O'Donnell in Kabul, Afghanistan, John-Thor Dahlburg in Brussels, Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations and Josh Lederman in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.