Part-time SAS soldier was shot accidentally

AN SAS soldier who was shot during a training exercise in Central America was killed accidentally, an inquest ruled yesterday.

The Army, which reported initially that Lance Corporal Mark Richards, 29, had shot himself, will now hold a Board of Inquiry.

L/Cpl Richards's father, David, said after yesterday's resumed inquest at Hereford: 'He was an excellent son, my only son. I am pleased that it has been publicly announced that his death was not the result of his own conduct or by his own weapon. That was a relief.'

The inquest was presented with evidence which showed that it was 'virtually impossible' for the bullets to have been fired from L/Cpl Richards's gun. He suffered at least two gunshot wounds - to the head and shoulder. The bullet in the shoulder was at an angle that ruled out his own gun being involved. There were also no burn marks, which would have been present with a weapon fired from a distance of less than two feet.

The other four members of the SAS patrol, and two instructors, giving evidence from behind screens to protect their identity, said the 'target contact' exercise had been practised before.

The Territorial Army SAS unit, 21 Squadron, to which L/Cpl Richards, a Gulf war veteran, belonged, is seconded to the full-time 22 Squadron SAS.

Troops were in Belize for a two-week jungle-fighting training exercise. Those involved, including L/Cpl Richards, had been given lectures and drills with blank ammunition before the live firing.

An SAS trooper with one month's service told the inquest that he was firing towards a target when his gun developed a stoppage for a second time. 'I flicked it from single fire to automatic and the weapon fired on its own without putting pressure on the trigger. It was probably a burst of more than ten rounds. I was in total control of the weapon at all times.'

David Campion, solicitor for the Richards family, asked the trooper, identified as witness G: 'Did some of the rounds from your weapon cause this incident?'

Before he could answer, Ian Burnett, counsel for the Ministry of Defence, said: 'Speculation on the part of any of these witnesses isn't going to help. There should be caution before proceeding along that line of questioning in view of the witness's general right not to answer any question that might incriminate him.' Trooper G declined to answer.

L/Cpl Richards joined the Territorial SAS five years ago after giving up a promising career as an amateur National Hunt jockey. He operated behind enemy lines during the conflict in the Gulf. With his father, he farmed 300 acres near Abergavenny, Gwent.

An SAS major said that the type of exercise being conducted had been standard in the regiment since it was re-formed in 1948. It was also used extensively in other army units. Live ammunition was used, among other reasons, because it 'increased realism'.

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