Fifty ways to leave your lover: US Army's online Lothario wreaks havoc and heartbreak

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The Independent US

For Robin Solod, a sassy New Yorker who had spent four years trawling internet dating sites looking for the right man, Colonel Kassem Saleh seemed the perfect catch.

He was a tall, good-looking, special forces officer contacting her from a war zone and he wrote her messages that she found as intoxicating as a crystal flute of champagne. What's more, he clearly had no commitment issues: within months of their "meeting" he had proposed marriage to her.

Unfortunately, the smooth-talking Mr Saleh had also allegedly made such a proposal to at least 50 other women he contacted through internet dating sites, luring them all with romantic prose and the prospect of a perfect future once he returned from the battlefields of Afghanistan.

He sent some of the women engagement rings and others went out and bought wedding dresses and started planning their big day, even though they had never met the man, who may have been an officer but was clearly not a gentleman.

Now, after complaints from the jilted women, the allegedly caddish colonel's unit, the Army's 18th Airborne Corps, based at Fort Bragg, Georgia, has launched an internal investigation, trying to ascertain how the 50-year-old was able to cultivate such an extensive cyber lovelife when he was supposed to have been at the forefront of President George Bush's war on terror. The officer is also likely to have some explaining to do to the real wife he had left back home.

"The commanders are aware of it, and they are currently investigating the alleged incidents," Sgt Christopher Fletcher, a spokesman for the Army corps, said.

The heartbroken women, meanwhile, want more. They are demanding the internet love rat be charged with a crime, though no one is sure if he is guilty of any legal offence.

"You did not see his letters," Ms Solod, 43, said yesterday from her home in Manhattan, explaining how she and the other apparently worldly women fell for the officer. He was more romantic than Shakespeare, she said, more romantic even than W B Yeats. "You don't know how intoxicating they were. I am a professional woman, I am smart, I am a typical New Yorker ... but he convinced me."

There were numerous other women who fell for the online Lothario - making contact through websites that included tallpersonals.com, match.com and christiansingles.com - and who only learnt of his treachery after a television channel showed footage of him returning home from his tour of duty to his wife in North Carolina.

Most of the time he communicated with the women using e-mail, writing missives that included lines such as "Oh baby, I want to tell you how much I miss you" and "I can't wait to get home to you". Most of the time he cut and pasted the same message to all the 50 women. Sometimes he would telephone them using a military satellite phone. Only a few actually met him. One woman reportedly tried to commit suicide when she discovered all was not what it had seemed.

Sarah Calder, 33, production manager of a local newspaper in Calais, Maine, said that the colonel had sent up to a dozen messages a day, though there were some days when he said he could not use the e-mail because he was "chasing terrorists in the hills".

Having spent weeks trying to choose the perfect wedding dress, Ms Calder was due to have met the officer for the first time several weeks ago. Having told her he was 6ft 5in (1.97m), the colonel warned her that he had shrunk to 6ft because of the repeated parachute jumps he had been forced to make. "I was very wary," she told The New York Times. "I know people can injure their backs. I found it strange."

The meeting never took place. Ms Calder - who had organised schoolchildren to make Valentine's Day gifts for the US soldiers - learnt from other jilted women that the man she planned to marry was apparently cheating them all.

Ms Solod said her last contact with Mr Saleh was six weeks ago, when she confronted him with his alleged lies. "He sent me a message that said, 'Get out of my life. Let me be the warrior monk that I am'."

Ms Calder is consulting a lawyer. She has also been speaking to her father about the duplicitous officer. "We are not a group of stupid, naive women," she explained. "We are bright, intellectual, professional women. I can't tell you how much he wooed us with his words. He made us feel like goddesses, fairy princesses, Cinderellas. We had all found our Superman, our knight in shining armour."

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