By James Mackenzie
KABUL (Reuters) - Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) will review its operations in Afghanistan following last weekend's deadly U.S. air strike on a hospital in the city of Kunduz, officials from the international aid group said on Thursday.
At least 22 patients and MSF staff were killed on Saturday when a U.S. aircraft attacked the hospital during fighting between Afghan government troops and Taliban forces. However, the death toll is likely to rise with nine patients and 24 staff unaccounted for and at least 24 bodies reported to be left in the abandoned hospital.
"The overwhelmingly shocking nature of the event forces us to take stock of our work in Afghanistan generally and to carefully weigh the safety and security of our staff and patients," Christopher Stokes, general director of the group, told a news conference in Kabul.
"Our future ability to work in Afghanistan will now be based on our ability to obtain a clear reaffirmation of the respect for humanitarian law," he said.
MSF has demanded an independent international investigation to establish the facts of the incident, which prompted U.S. President Barack Obama to apologize to the group on Wednesday.
MSF, which has been in Afghanistan since 1980, pulled out for a period after five staff were killed in 2004. It has already shut down its hospital's operations in Kunduz and has given no indication of when it might reopen.
"At the moment, MSF has not received any explanations or assurances that give us the confidence to be able to return," said Guilhem Molinie, the group's country director for Afghanistan.
He said that nine of the 105 patients in the hospital on Saturday and 24 of the group's 461 staff were unaccounted for and there appeared to be more dead still to be officially registered.
"We heard yesterday there were still 24 bodies inside the hospital," Molinie said, though he said the information did not come from MSF staff but from people who had been able to visit the site since the group pulled out.
MSF, known in English as Doctors Without Borders, has fiercely criticized the inconsistent accounts of the incident in the northern city provided by Afghan and U.S. authorities, who took days to accept responsibility.
On Thursday, MSF officials repeated earlier statements that the hospital's location had been clearly indicated to all parties and that no Taliban fighters were occupying the site, as some Afghan government officials initially stated.
They said an independent investigation to establish what happened by the International Humanitarian Fact-Finding Commission (IHFFC), a body set up under the Geneva Convention, would set an important precedent for other conflict regions.
"We want a more solid system to be able to establish the proof for this attack and also for potential future incidents," Stokes said.
(Reporting by James Mackenzie; Editing by Robert Birsel)