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Tape shows pilots' anguish after friendly fire

`I'm going to be sick,' one says as he realizes their mistake over Iraq.

February 07, 2007|Janet Stobart | Times Staff Writer

LONDON — American pilots can be heard cursing and weeping after finding out they had just fired on a British convoy in southern Iraq at the beginning of the U.S.-led invasion, according to cockpit video footage leaked to a British tabloid.

Shortly after the Sun newspaper posted the video on its website Tuesday, the U.S. government relented on its refusal to allow the video to be shown in a British court. The 2003 strike near Basra killed a British soldier and wounded several others.

"I'm going to be sick," one pilot can be heard saying after he was informed of his mistake. "Did you hear?"

"Yeah, this sucks," says another pilot.

"We're in jail, dude," the first pilot says.

The Pentagon had given the 15-minute cockpit video to British authorities as part of a military inquiry, but refused to allow it to be shown in the civil proceedings conducted by British coroner Andrew Walker, who is investigating the death of the British soldier, Lance Cpl. Matty Hull.

Walker suspended the inquest last week, saying that he would continue only when he could show the film to the Hull family.

The friendly fire strike of March 28, 2003, was carried out by an A-10 Warthog plane flying a sortie with a second A-10 near Basra in southern Iraq.

Five days earlier, A-10s had fired on a company of Marines near Nasiriya, killing 18. The antitank aircraft, which are equipped with armor-piercing munitions, are used primarily to support ground troops.

The sequence shows the cockpit view of the targets from the U.S. plane flying at about 12,000 feet. The radio exchange between pilots and ground controllers centers on what appear to be flatbed trucks. Pilots and controllers attempt to identify whether they are friendly.

The pilots first talk of "orange panels" carried by coalition vehicles to identify them as "friendlies," but ground staff assure them there are no allied troops or vehicles in the immediate area. "You are well clear of friendlies," says a ground controller identified as Manila Hotel.

The pilots' decision to strike comes after they apparently conclude that the orange panels are rocket launchers atop flatbed trucks.

As the aircraft are returning to base, one of the pilots tells the other: "That thing with orange panels is going to screw us.... They look like orange rockets."

The U.S. authorization to show the video came with the proviso that news media be excluded from the viewing, and that a Defense Ministry official should be present, the BBC reported.

Hull's widow, Susan, said in a statement Tuesday that "the inquest is my one and only chance to hear how and why Matty died."

"I would have preferred to hear the evidence from the U.S. pilots themselves. However, they cannot be compelled to come and they have not come voluntarily.

"The video is therefore vital evidence and must be shown. I do not relish hearing it in open court, but after years of being told that it did not exist or was secret I feel that it was right not to give up hope."

The family had initially been told no such video existed, according to press reports, but the British Defense Ministry website stated, "This recording is the property of the United States government and the [ministry] does not have the right to release it without their permission."

The ministry said that "some classified material" had been withheld, but "there has never been any intention to deliberately deceive or mislead Lance Corporal of Horse Hull's family."

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Tuesday that the Pentagon and British authorities had determined that the strike was "a terrible, terrible accident."

"You can almost hear the horror and regret on the part of the pilot," McCormack said, referring to the tape.

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