U.K. inquiry finds U.S. pilots in error

Air attack in Iraq killed British soldier

March 17, 2007|By Kim Murphy | Kim Murphy,Los Angeles Times

LONDON -- The death of a British lance corporal whose armored vehicle was mistakenly incinerated by a U.S. warplane in Iraq in 2003 was "criminal" and "entirely avoidable," a coroner ruled yesterday.

The British inquest's search for investigative material on the case was marked by repeated military roadblocks, but Assistant Deputy Coroner Andrew Walker concluded that the friendly-fire incident showed evidence of error on the part of U.S. pilots.

Contradicting the findings of a U.S. inquiry, which concluded that the incident was a "tragic accident," the Oxfordshire examiner said the pilots should have flown lower in order to positively identify the British convoy, which they believed to be Iraqi, before opening fire.

"I don't think this was a case of honest mistake. There is no evidence the pilots were acting in self-defense," Walker said.

"The attack on the convoy amounted to an assault," he added. "It was unlawful, because there was no lawful reason for it, and in that respect it was criminal."

Attorney Geraldine McCool, representing the family of 25-year-old Lance Cpl. Matty Hull, said the coroner's ruling was important because it concluded that the pilots operated outside the normal rules of engagement.

"It's significant in that it shows that there was serious misconduct by the pilots. It's the most culpable verdict that we have in this case," she said.

The coroner's ruling carries little weight legally; the U.S. military is not within its jurisdiction. But family members said that it ended their search for an explanation of how Hull died. Four other British soldiers were injured in the attack.

"All of our family feel it's the right verdict. It's what we've waited four years to hear, and it's just a great sense of relief that it's over," Hull's widow, Susan Hull, said at a news conference after the ruling. "But what that means for us is that it was entirely avoidable."

The case drew international attention after the release of a video showing the shooting by the American A-10 plane and recording the agonized voices of the pilots as they realized their mistake. The existence of the video had not been disclosed until it was reported by the British newspaper The Sun.

Earlier this week, Hull's family made a public appeal to the U.S. government to release the contents of 11 lines that were redacted from the U.S. investigation report disclosed to the coroner's inquest.

Lt. Col. Mark Ballesteros, a Pentagon spokesman, said portions of the report were redacted "for security, privacy or other reasons."

In its own inquiry, completed in 2004, the British military found shortfalls in communications, limited training, insufficient time to complete liaison between U.S. and British forces, confusing marking on the British tanks, and high "task load" on the part of one of the U.S. pilots all contributed to the incident.

The British Defense Ministry issued an apology "for confusion and upset caused over the handling of the cockpit footage" and said the inquest "has highlighted the need for a more coherent approach to the management of documentation and evidence."

"We are carefully considering the coroner's comments and their full implications," the government statement read.

Kim Murphy writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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