President Obama apologized Wednesday to the leader of Doctors Without Borders over the deadly U.S. bombing of a field hospital in Afghanistan, just a day after the White House stopped short of an apology by citing a lack of information about what led to the attack.
It wasn’t immediately clear what moved Obama to say he was sorry, but “based on what the president has learned,” he thought it was best to “own up to our mistakes and to vow to carry out a full investigation to get to the bottom of exactly what happened,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said of the president’s decision.
The U.S. military has been helping Afghan forces trying to retake the northern city of Kunduz, which was seized by the Taliban early last week in the militant group’s first major takeover of an Afghan urban area since the U.S.-led invasion 14 years ago.
Pentagon officials have given various explanations of how the hospital was bombed Saturday, saying both that the strike was ordered to protect U.S. troops and that Afghan forces under fire requested the strike. The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. John Campbell, told U.S. lawmakers Tuesday that the bombing was a mistake and that the decision to carry it out came from the American chain of command.
Twenty-two people were killed in the attack, and dozens wounded in the bombing.
Earnest said the U.S. “mistakenly struck” the hospital.
On Tuesday, as details came to light, Earnest called the event a “profound tragedy” but said that, before he could “go further than that,” investigators would have to “learn exactly what happened and provide the full accounting that the president has asked for.”
In a phone call from the Oval Office, Obama assured the president of Doctors Without Borders, Dr. Joanne Liu, that a Pentagon investigation of the bombing would provide a “transparent, thorough and objective accounting of the facts” that, if necessary, would result in changes to reduce the likelihood of another attack, Earnest said.
But he sidestepped the question of whether the White House would support the independent investigation that Liu has called for. Earnest said investigations underway, including one by the Pentagon, will provide the accounting the president thinks is necessary.
In a news conference Wednesday in Geneva, Liu said the International Humanitarian Fact-Finding Commission, a group set up under the Geneva Convention, should look into the attack.
“We received President Obama’s apology today for the attack against our trauma hospital in Afghanistan,” the group later said in a statement. “However, we reiterate our ask that the U.S. government consent to an independent investigation.”
After his apology to Liu, Obama called Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to express his condolences for the loss of life and commended the Afghan forces in securing Kunduz.
“When we make a mistake, we’re honest about it,” Earnest said.
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