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The suspected US-led air strike on a hospital in the Afghan city of Kunduz that killed at least 19 people, including 12 members of Doctors Without Borders (MSF), was "inexcusable" and possibly criminal, the UN's human rights chief has said, as the Pentagon ordered an investigation into the deadly raid.

Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein called for a full and transparent investigation, noting that, "if established as deliberate in a court of law, an air strike on a hospital may amount to a war crime".

"This event is utterly tragic, inexcusable, and possibly even criminal," Zeid said in a statement.

Among the fatalities in the early Saturday morning attack were three children.

It also wounded 37 people, including 19 MSF staff, 18 patients and caretakers, according to the medical charity known by its French initials, MSF.

MSF President Meinie Nicolai condemned the attack as "abhorrent and a grave violation of International Humanitarian Law."

"We demand total transparency from coalition forces. We cannot accept that this horrific loss of life will simply be dismissed as 'collateral damage'."

Officials of the charity organisation said they "frantically phoned" NATO and Washington DC, as bombs rained on the hospital for "nearly an hour".

In a statement, US President Barack Obama said: "On behalf of the American people, I extend my deepest condolences to the medical professionals and other civilians killed and injured in the tragic incident.

"The Department of Defence has launched a full investigation, and we will await the results of that inquiry before making a definitive judgment as to the circumstances of this tragedy.

"I have asked the Department of Defence to keep me apprised of the investigation and expect a full accounting of the facts and circumstances.

"Michelle and I offer our thoughts and prayers to all of the civilians affected by this incident, their families, and loved ones."

'More answers'

US defence chief Ash Carter called the incident "tragic" and acknowledged that US forces were operating nearby in support of the Afghan army.

Witness recalls deadly air raid on Afghan hospital

"While we are still trying to determine exactly what happened, I want to extend my thoughts and prayers to everyone affected.

"A full investigation into the tragic incident is under way in coordination with the Afghan government."

The office of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said Army General John Campbell, head of the US-led forces in Afghanistan, had apologised for the incident. 

In an interview with Al Jazeera, Bart Janssesns, MSF operations chief, demanded "more answers" from the US government, adding that the location of the hospital has been well-known by US-led forces for the last five years.

Vickie Hawkins, another MSF spokesman, told Al Jazeera that the last time the US-led coalition was provided the exact location of the hospital was on September 29. 

Collateral damage

Al Jazeera's Qais Azimy, reporting from Puli Khumri, about 130km from Kunduz, where some of the survivors were treated, described a "heartbreaking" scene at one local hospital.

"This event is utterly tragic, inexcusable and possibly even criminal,"

Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, UN Human Rights chief

He said that two children, who were injured in previous fighting in Kunduz, recalled how they and their father survived by hiding under a table.

In a separate statement, the US-led coalition acknowledged launching the air strike "against individuals threatening the force".

"The strike may have resulted in collateral damage to a nearby medical facility. This incident is under investigation."

The MSF hospital is seen as a key medical lifeline in Kunduz, which has been running "beyond capacity" in recent days of fighting, which saw the Taliban seize control of the provincial capital for several days.

The trauma centre is the only medical facility in the region that can deal with major injuries.

At the time of the bombing, 105 patients and their caretakers and more than 80 MSF international and national staff were present in the hospital, the charity said.

Following the attack, MSF's operation is "effectively stopped" in Kunduz, MSF's Janssens told Al Jazeera.

After the attack, the medical charity urged all parties involved in the violence to respect the safety of health facilities, patients and staff.

Speaking to Al Jazeera, Taliban spokesperson Zabiullah Mujahid said that no Taliban fighters were present in the hospital at the time of the air strike.

"We condemn the bombing on the hospital. It was an attack carried out on innocent people," Mujahid told Al Jazeera.

"Our mujahideen (fighters) were not treated at the MSF trauma centre due to prevailing military conditions. Such attacks by US forces have taken place in Afghanistan for years now.

"This very attack has once again exposed the ruthless colors of the invaders to the Afghans." 

MSF's hospital is the only facility of its kind in the whole northeastern region of Afghanistan [MSF]

However, an Afghan interior ministry spokesperson claimed the fighters were attacking security forces with gunfire and grenades from an area near the hospital.

A caretaker at the hospital, who was severely injured in the air strike, told Al Jazeera that the clinic's medical staff did not favour any side the conflict. 

"We are here to help and treat civilians," Abdul Manar said.

The development came a day after the Afghan government claimed it had successfully retaken parts of Kunduz from Taliban fighters, who had controlled the strategic city since Monday.

The Taliban, however, claimed it remained in control of most of Kunduz, our correspondent said.

Kunduz is facing a humanitarian crisis, with thousands of civilians caught in the crossfire between government forces and Taliban fighters.

Precise losses in the fighting were not known, but health authorities said on Friday that at least 60 people have been killed and 400 wounded.

Al Jazeera's Azimy also reported that civilians continue to pour out of Kunduz to escape the fighting.

The Taliban's offensive in Kunduz, their biggest tactical success since 2001, marks a major blow for Afghanistan's Western-trained forces, who have largely been fighting on their own since last December.

Additional reporting by Shereena Qazi. Follow her on Twitter @ShereenaQazi

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies