Coroner calls for change to Army 'live-fire' training

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The Independent Online
A CORONER called for changes in Army safety procedures after a jury returned a verdict of unlawful killing on a soldier killed in a live- firing exercise on Salisbury Plain. An Army safety expert said aspects of the battle's planning and execution were flawed or incomplete.

For a jury to record a verdict of unlawful killing they have to be satisfied that somebody had been grossly negligent in protecting the health or safety of another person.

The MoD said last night that once the coroner's recommendations were available in full they would consider them carefully.

Corporal Neil Hughes, 26, married with one daughter, served with the Duke of Wellington's Regiment based at Bulford, Wiltshire. The inquest was told that he died when he was hit on the side by a 5.56mm bullet from an SA-80 rifle after advancing with a colleague into covering fire from the other 24 men in his platoon. One of the targets at which they were firing failed to operate and they were ordered to fire at a gap in the trees instead. It was the first time they had fired live ammunition other than on a standard shooting range.

Sergeant John Cook said he realised things were not going a according to plan. He told the hearing: 'The two crawling men were only about 15 metres from where bullets were landing and I thought something was going to go wrong.' He said he radioed for the soldiers to switch their line of fire but his warning failed to halt the hail of bullets.

A safety expert, Major Michael Noonan, said: 'The exercising troops do not appear to have been sufficiently clear about the tactical picture and safety constraints.'

After a four-day inquest in which he heard evidence from 38 witnesses the coroner, David Masters, said he heard several soldiers express misgivings over safety methods, complaining there had been no safety briefing on the day.

Cpl Hughes's father, Captain David Hughes, said he was very pleased with the jury's decision. 'We trust that as a result the Ministry of Defence will now take steps to ensure such a tragedy will never happen again.' He added that the family was now pursuing a civil action through the courts.

The coroner made several recommendations including that if a target failed to operate those firing at it should stop; that there should be more than one safety officer for four soldiers when inexperienced soldiers are taking part in live firing exercises; that safety officers be more conspicuously marked; and that the Army should consider whether or not the order to stop firing can be more efficiently communicated in an emergency other than by word of mouth.