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'Friendly Fire' Pilot Feared an Attack

Afghanistan: He dropped a bomb that killed four Canadians after deciding he was acting in self-defense, U.S. says.

April 19, 2002|JOHN HENDREN and DAVID ZUCCHINO | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — The American F-16 pilot who dropped a bomb that killed four Canadian soldiers early Thursday acted because flashes of gunfire from a training exercise led him to believe that he was under attack, Pentagon officials said.

In what became one of the deadliest "friendly fire" incidents of the Afghan war, the Air National Guard pilot asked for permission to strike the site where he saw muzzles flaring below him in the dark, but was given approval only to mark the target and give it a second look, defense officials said.

The pilot launched the 500-pound laser-guided bomb at 1:55 a.m. after deciding that he was acting in self-defense, as pilots are sometimes permitted to do, the officials said.

The reservist apparently had not been told that he was flying over Tarnak Farms, a desert landscape of sand and clay ringed by rocky cliffs three miles south of the Kandahar air base. The former Al Qaeda training camp has long been sealed off from the public and designated as a coalition training area, routinely used by U.S., Canadian and other forces.

About 100 coalition soldiers were conducting night training with live ammunition when the bomb struck, Gen. Raymond Henault, Canada's chief of defense staff, told reporters in Ottawa.

Four soldiers were killed instantly. Six others suffered serious wounds and were flown to a hospital at Ramstein Air Base in Germany. Two soldiers with minor injuries were treated at the Kandahar base.

President Bush informed Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien of the incident by phone at 8 p.m. Wednesday and said Americans were "deeply saddened" by the deaths.

As Canadian officials and their U.S. counterparts launched separate investigations, Canadian leaders expressed concern over the erroneous bombing and said they hoped that any changes suggested by the inquiries to prevent a recurrence would be implemented.

Chretien voiced his concern before the Canadian House of Commons.

"There are so many questions," the prime minister said. "How has this happened? I want to assure the families and the people of Canada that these questions will be answered."

Despite the tension between the closely allied nations, Canadian and American officials said the bombing would not affect the coalition's cooperation in prosecuting the war.

"We will not waiver in our mission despite this terrible tragedy," Henault said. "Our soldiers are no strangers to danger."

The casualties were among an 880-member Canadian contingent, the second-largest at the base after the Americans, with whom the Canadians share duties such as guarding the gates, deactivating land mines and patrolling. Canadian soldiers gathered around a bulletin board in the main airport building to read official statements posted about the bombing.

"These young men were among the finest, bravest paratroops I have ever soldiered with," said Canadian army Lt. Col. Pat Stogran, commander of the killed soldiers' 3rd Battalion of the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry battle group, based in Edmonton, Alberta. "They will not be forgotten."

U.S. Army Col. Frank Wiercinski, standing in front of a Canadian flag flying at half-staff, said: "They are our comrades in arms. In the last several months, we have lived together, we have fought together, and now we will mourn together."

The slain soldiers were identified as Sgt. Marc D. Leger, 29; Cpl. Ainsworth Dyer, 25; and Pvts. Richard A. Green, 22, and Nathan Smith, 27.

"Ultimately, these men knew better than any of us the risks that they would be facing," Canadian Defense Minister Art Eggleton told reporters in Ottawa. "And they accepted them, like all members of the Canadian forces, with courage, bravery and conviction."

The F-16 pilot was not based in Kandahar, U.S. officials said, but was part of a large contingent of reserve airmen stationed at bases throughout Central Asia and ferrying cargo in from Europe and the Middle East. His was apparently one of two F-16s flying in tandem on patrol just before the bombing, Army Maj. Bryan Hilferty told reporters at the American air base at Bagram, north of Kabul. He described the pilots as experienced.

"We do everything we can to mitigate risk," Hilferty said. "We are in a very, very dangerous business. We play with stuff that kills people."

The bombing occurred as the U.S. Joint Forces Command was conducting testing in Gulfport, Miss., of a system designed to avoid friendly fire by using sensors to distinguish allied from enemy fighters. The two-week evaluation began Monday.

The erroneous airstrike marked the third such incident of the war confirmed by the Pentagon:

* Five Americans and an untold number of Afghan soldiers were injured amid an uprising of Taliban prisoners at a compound outside Mazar-i-Sharif on Nov. 26 after a Navy F-18 used faulty coordinates to target the site.

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