Gulf minefields expert 'given no safety clothing'

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The Independent Online
A mine disposal expert was blinded and lost a leg clearing mines following the Gulf war because he was sent to Kuwait with no protective clothing or equipment, the High Court was told yesterday.

Paul Jefferson, 39, was sent to Kuwait in 1991 by Royal Ordnance, a subsidiary of British Aerospace, to make safe minefields laid by retreating Iraqi forces. "What happened to me could have happened to anyone anywhere else [in the minefields]. We were sent to Kuwait without any equipment or protective clothing," he said.

He had taken a pair of goggles with him but had lent them to another member of the team detonating mines in the Kuwaiti oil fields. Mr Jefferson alleged he was threatened by members of Royal Ordnance that, despite a lack of equipment, if he could not carry out the work he "could get on the next plane home". The unit was expected to "scavenge" for equipment left by retreating enemy forces.

He and three other members of the team were involved in a mission to establish whether certain types of Iraqi mines could be destroyed by burning them in June 1991, when he trod on a mine. Because the Ordnance disposal teams were not equipped with detonators to blow up mines the four men had gone to a mine dump on a Kuwaiti beach to "scavenge" for suitable equipment.

After a makeshift detonation process using a Coca-Cola can filled with petrol and failed, Mr Jefferson entered the mine dump to find something more suitable to set fire to the mines.

"Had he been wearing protective goggles he would have kept his sight," Andrew Hogarth, for the prosecution, said. "Had the right equipment been available Mr Jefferson would never have been in the dump where the mine went off."

William Norris QC, for the defence, said Mr Jefferson was a "cavalier operator" who kept mines under his bed in the temporary building he stayed in while in Kuwait and did not always wear protective clothing even when it was available.

Mr Jefferson, a former Royal Engineer, replied that there were no other facilities for storage of mines that had been made safe and were needed for training purposes.

He added that a photograph of him standing in a "minefield" without safety goggles produced by the defence was actually a posed publicity photograph for a humanitarian organisation he had worked for in Afghanistan on "a perfectly safe piece of road".

The first aid kit given to the team consisted of "a few plasters and some aspirin", he told Mr Justice Henry Brooke.

He was in agony in the hours it took him to get to hospital with his foot blown off and shrapnel embedded in his face and eyes, the court heard. He now has an artificial leg and has never recovered his sight.

Royal Ordnance had won a pounds 60m contract awarded by the Kuwaiti government to carry out the work which was concentrated on the nation's southern beaches and oil fields. More than 100 men were employed to clear minefields, of which eight men died and at least two others were injured, Mr Hogarth told the court.

The case continues.