US forces who launched a deadly airstrike on an Afghan hospital had intended to attack a nearby Taliban-controlled compound, military officials told American media, citing an investigation set to blame human and technical error.
The Oct. 3 air raid on a Doctors Without Borders (MSF) hospital in the Taliban-held northern city of Kunduz killed at least 30 people, sparked an avalanche of global condemnation, and forced the French charity to close the hospital.
Two military officials told The New York Times Tuesday that a Special Operations AC-130 gunship aircraft hit the hospital instead of an Afghan intelligence compound hundreds of feet away that was thought to have been commandeered by Taliban fighters during their brief capture of the city.
The gunship's crew relied on location information relayed to them by US and Afghan special forces rather than their aircraft's instruments, according to the officials, who discussed the report on condition of anonymity ahead of its formal release.
The findings were set to be officially announced by US General John Campbell at NATO headquarters in Kabul at 7:00 p.m. Wednesday local time (1430 GMT).
"No nation does more to prevent civilian casualties than the United States, but we failed to meet our own high standards on October 3rd," Campbell told reporters. "This was a tragic, but avoidable accident caused primarily by human error."
MSF said Wednesday it could not comment on the reports as it has not yet seen the results of the investigation.
The officials' account as quoted by the NYT does not address why the attack — which lasted more than one hour — was not halted despite frantic telephone calls from MSF staff, nor why US ground forces failed to intervene when they saw the wrong building being hit.
One official told the Times the crew did not receive a full preflight briefing that would have told them the Kunduz hospital was protected under the Geneva Convention.
The US military also failed to follow its own rules of engagement for calling air strikes — that American or Afghan troops must be in extreme danger — while the Special Operations Forces did not positively identify that the area targeted was legitimate, the paper said.
"There was certainly some confusion over what they were shooting at," an official told the Wall Street Journal, which received a similar briefing. "If there wasn't, then this wouldn't have happened."
MSF released short biographies of 14 staff members who died in the attack, including doctors, nurses, cleaners and guards. They were described as dedicated to their work and their country.
When Abdul Satar Zaheer, the 47-year-old deputy medical director, was asked by his son why he often worked until midnight, "he would say that he was not working, but serving the Afghan people", MSF said.
Tahseel, a 35-year-old pharmacist, was killed after returning from holiday a few days early "to assist the team when they needed him most".
The US military offered a series of shifting explanations for the attack before President Barack Obama admitted in a call to MSF chief Joanne Liu that it had been a mistake and apologised.
A NATO statement released hours after the attack would not confirm the hospital was targeted, characterising it instead as "collateral damage" as Afghan forces came under fire.
The next day the US confirmed the hospital was hit directly but did not offer further details.
Later General Campbell suggested that Afghan forces had called in the strike, before offering a fourth account in four days admitting US special forces had been in touch with the aircraft.
NATO and the Afghan army are conducting their own investigations.
MSF has called for an independent international investigation, saying the attack could be determined to be a "war crime".