Journalists riding on tank killed in ambush

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The Independent Online

Survivors of a Taliban ambush that killed two French journalists and a German reporter described how they were attacked in the dark while riding on the back of a Northern Alliance tank.

The group of six journalists set out on Sunday evening in pitch darkness, laughing and joking, not aware that there were any Taliban troops nearby, said Véronique Reyberotte, of Radio-France, one of the three who escaped unharmed.

Those who died were Johanne Sutton, 34, of Radio France Internationale, Pierre Billaud, 31, of RTL radio and Volker Handloik, 40, a freelancer working for Stern, a German news magazine .

The corps of journalists had spent the afternoon watching the Northern Alliance on the front line on Shatarai ridge in north-east Afghanistan, which the local commander said had been virtually cleared of Taliban forces, who had fled on Saturday night.

The commander, General Bashir, decided that he was going to examine the forward trenches, and agreed to take the correspondents with him.

They jumped on board with him and about six soldiers. But because of a lack of room inside, Ms Sutton, Mr Billaud and Mr Handloik, had to stand outside the tank, clinging on to whatever they could.. After five or ten minutes, the tank came under fire.

"They were very close to us, with Kalashnikovs and anti-tank missiles," said Ms Reyberotte. "They were trying to hit the fuel tank at the back of the tank. Everything went very quickly ... the tank braked sharply and everyone fell off or jumped off. We ran for shelter ... the [Northern Alliance] soldiers came back to help us."

Paul McGeough of the Sydney Morning Herald, who was also riding on the tank, said he had "clung on for grim death and survived". Mr McGeough wrote in his paper yesterday: "At about 6.30pm Commander Hassan of the Northern Alli-ance suggested we go to look at a Taliban trench that had surrendered. When we got there, they had not surrendered."

Ms Sutton was found dead almost immediately, having taken a direct hit in the chest and leg. The other two victims were found yesterday morning. The third survivor was Levon Sevunts, a Russian journalist.

Ms Sutton had been a war and big-events reporter at RFI -- the French equivalent of the BBC World Service -- since 1997. She had previously been the RFI correspondent in London. Born in Casablanca, she had covered conflicts all over the globe. Gilles Schneider, head of RFI, described her yesterday as a "great reporter" who had "died on the field of honour of news gathering".

He said she was "cautious, courageous and scrupulous about the accuracy of her information. To check your facts needs moral and physical courage. That is what killed Johanne."

Mr Billaud, born in south-western France, was also a veteran of several conflicts. He had reported from Palestine, Kosovo, Algeria and Afghanis-tan. The RTL journalists' society described him as a "respected and courageous journalist ... known for the intelligence of his reporting and his strength of character".

Mr Handloik, from Rostock in north-east Germany, had worked for Stern and other German magazines for 10 years, covering, among other areas, the former Soviet republics and Latin America. He is the fourth Stern journalist to have been killed covering wars in the past six years.

Thomas Osterkorn, the magazine's editor, said: "His death has left us speechless. Our thoughts are with his relatives and those of all the journalists who were killed." Colleagues said Mr Handloik was not a "kamikaze" reporter. "He was a very experienced reporter, who had already covered many hot spots," said one.

Jacques Chirac, the French President, paid tribute to "all journalists who placed their lives in peril in the name of freedom and the duty to inform".

None of the three journalists was married. Last night, the Northern Alliance expressed concern about the safety of correspondents in the field.

"These are not traditional front lines, it is not like the First World War. This is the most dangerous front line in the world because it is a hidden front line," a local official said.

The German Foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, urged journalists covering wars around the globe to exercise greater caution. "The best, the nicest, even the most exciting story is not worth anything if it can't be written," he told reporters in New York.