Investigation into killed soldier's death suffered from 'systematic failures'

Family calls on Ministry of Defence to take responsibility for 'preventable' death

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The Independent Online

The family of a soldier who was killed by friendly fire urged the Ministry of Defence yesterday to admit responsibility for his “preventable” death.

Sapper Mark Smith’s mother spoke shortly after coroner Roger Hatch called for an inquiry into “systematic failures” in the investigation surrounding his death in Afghanistan.

Sapper Smith, 26, who was remembered by friends as a larger than life character who could charm his way out of any situation, had been working as part of a bomb disposal search team supporting Royal Marines of 40 Commando in one of the most lethal parts of Helmand.

But a smoke screen shell, intended to provide cover for troops advancing towards the enemy, fell 860 feet short of its target, hitting the compound in the Sangin area. Sapper Smith, who had volunteered for a second tour of Afghanistan having already served in Iraq, was killed while two others were injured.

“We believe that Mark's death was preventable. The evidence shows that a broken weather computer and use of incorrect data from earlier in the day resulted in Mark's death,” his mother Helen Smith said after the inquest.

She continued: ”This is compounded by the fact that the investigation was flawed. Key evidence has gone missing and has never been returned to the UK. We will probably never know if the ammunition failed on that fateful day.

“We do not blame the soldiers involved in the operation for whom we have the utmost admiration. However, we believe the Ministry of Defence needs to take responsibility for this so as to avoid further deaths."

Recording the death as having been ”in the course of active service when a smoke shell fell short“, the North West Kent coroner decried the fact that the “unsatisfactory” investigation into his death had been hampered by missing evidence and incomplete documentation.

”I take the view that there should be a statutory inquiry into the failures,“ Mr Hatch said.

The inquest heard that on 26 July 2010 Sapper Smith, of 36 Engineer Regiment, was working as part of the Counter Improvised Explosive Device Task Force search team. One smoke shell had already fallen short of its target that morning, though no one was injured, when later that day another one hit the compound he was resting in.

Yesterday Captain Doug Brain, who was with Sapper Smith at the time, paid tribute to "a man who truly lived life to the full, with an unrivalled wit and a wicked sense of humour."

”He was a larger than life character who put others before himself and was inevitably the first to volunteer for any task, however difficult. He is sorely missed by those who knew him and his sacrifice will not be forgotten.”

An Army spokesman said the coroner’s findings would be considered in detail, adding: “This was a tragic accident, which resulted in the death of a gifted and well-respected soldier.

”Lessons have been learnt, including ensuring that a minimum safety buffer zone of 500 metres is established before firing smoke rounds.”