Prince Harry poised for return to action on Afghanistan frontline

Training for combat missions set to reignite debate over safety of his fellow troops

Prince Harry has qualified to fly Apache helicopter-gunships, paving the way for his return to the frontline in Afghanistan from where he was evacuated under controversial circumstances four years ago.

Captain Harry Wales, as he is known in the Army, won an award for the best co-pilot gunner on the 18-month course, which included flying exercises in the US. He will now be posted for training at RAF Wattisham in Norfolk before becoming eligible for combat missions. The Ministry of Defence stressed last night that no decision had been made yet about the Prince's first tour, but senior officers are said to be sympathetic to his wish for combat duty in Helmand and he is expected to be sent there this year.

Harry, third in line to the throne, was deployed to Afghanistan in December 2007 as a junior Army officer, with the British media agreeing not to publicise the matter. It was maintained that disclosing the Prince's whereabouts would make him and those serving alongside him particular targets for insurgents. However, 10 weeks into the tour, an American website revealed his presence in Helmand, forcing his withdrawal to the UK.

Harry had stated that it would be pointless to put him through costly Apache training if he was then barred from going into combat. "You become a very expensive asset, the training's very expensive and they wouldn't have me doing what I'm doing," he said. "I'd just be taking up a spare place for somebody else if they didn't have me going out on the job."

The deployment of the Prince's brother, William, to the South Atlantic has added to the rising diplomatic confrontation between Britain and Argentina. His six-week tour of duty as an RAF search and rescue pilot was described by the MoD as "a routine operational matter". But the foreign ministry in Buenos Aires called it part of "an ongoing attempt to militarise the conflict" and regretted that the heir to the throne would arrive wearing "the uniform of a conqueror".

Speaking of Prince Harry's qualification Col Neale Moss, Commander of the Attack Helicopter Force at Wattisham Station, said: "The Apache course is extremely challenging, teaching and testing students in their flying skills, decision making and mental agility on exercise all over the country and abroad. They are assessed continually to ensure that they are up to the challenge of operating one of the most sophisticated attack helicopters in the world. This requires composure, dedication and hard work and I congratulate all of the students as they go forward to join an operational squadron and continue to learn more in their aviation careers."

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