The defence correspondent of the Sunday Mirror newspaper has become the first British journalist to be killed while covering the war in Afghanistan.
Rupert Hamer, 39, was accompanying a US Marine Corps patrol when an explosion from a device hidden outside a small village hit the vehicle he was travelling in on Saturday. The photographer Philip Coburn, 43, who had worked with Mr Hamer in several war zones, suffered severe leg injuries in the attack. He is in a serious but stable condition in the British military hospital at Camp Bastion in Helmand.
The explosion, which also killed one US Marine and seriously injured four others, brought to 18 the number of journalists who have died in Afghanistan since the 9/11 attacks as they seek to cover the US-led invasion and its aftermath. It is the first time that a British reporter has been killed in the conflict and Mr Hamer is the first UK correspondent to die in a warzone since the death of ITN’s Terry Lloyd in Iraq in 2003.
Mr Hamer, a father of three who had worked for the Sunday Mirror for 12 years and been its defence correspondent since 2004, left Britain on new year’s eve with Mr Coburn to spend a month embedded with American troops in Helmand, southern Afghanistan, as they undertake their well-publicised “surge” against the Taliban.
They had been approaching the village of Nawa in southern Helmand when the attack took place on Saturday afternoon. Despite frantic efforts to save him by an American military medical team, Mr Hamer died at the scene. Mr Coburn was evacuated to Camp Bastion, the main British base in Afghanistan, to undergo emergency surgery.
Both journalists were veterans of reporting from conflict zones. Mr Hamer, described as a “seasoned, highly-regarded and brave” reporter, had worked in Iraq and was on his fifth trip to Afghanistan. Mr Coburn, who has worked for the Sunday Mirror for eight years, had previously worked in Afghanistan, Iraq and Rwanda.
Colleagues and friends in the media paid tribute to their courage and professionalism. Tina Weaver, the editor of the Sunday Mirror, said that Hamer “believed that the only place to report a war was from the front line... He was a fine, fearless and skilled writer who joined the paper 12 years ago. Affectionately known as Corporal Hamer in the office, he was a gregarious figure, a wonderful friend who was hugely popular with his colleagues.”
Among the qualities attributed to Mr Hamer was an ability to balance close scrutiny of the British and coalition forces’ campaign in Afghanistan with an understanding of the complexity of the challenge faced by the military and an empathy with the troops carrying out the fighting.
One of his last assignments before heading to Helmand was to organise a special Christmas edition of his paper to be sent to soldiers with personal messages from loved ones at home.
The Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, highlighted the role played by Mr Hamer and Mr Coburn, saying: “Their courage, skill and dedication to reporting from the frontline was incredibly important and ensured that the world could see and read about our heroic troops. Their professionalism and commitment to our forces will not be forgotten.”
The Defence Secretary, Bob Ainsworth, who knew both men, said Saturday’s explosion had highlighted the dangers faced by reporters in war zones. “The sacrifice of service personnel is well documented and rightly respected,” he said, “but this news demonstrates the risks also faced by journalists who keep the public informed of events on the frontline.”
The death of Mr Hamer, who leaves behind his wife, Helen, a fellow journalist, and their three children aged six, five and 19 months, is the latest to highlight the particular dangers faced by journalists in much of Afghanistan, where the threat from the Taliban and their ever-growing arsenal of IEDs or improvised explosive devices means it is extremely difficult to report on the ground without being embedded with the military.
A Canadian newspaper journalist, Michelle Lang, 34, who worked for The Calgary Herald, died late last month along with four Canadian soldiers when an IED exploded beside the vehicle she was travelling in. An Afghan translator for The New York Times, Sultan Munadi, was killed in September during a rescue operation to free him and the paper’s British correspondent, Stephen Farrell, from their Taliban captors. The men had been operating independently.
Colonel Richard Kemp, the former commander of British forces in Afghanistan, said the nature of reporting on the conflict meant it had been inevitable that a British journalist would eventually be killed. “Tragically, it was a matter of time,” he said. “Our journalists, the same as other journalists deploying on operations with forces in Afghanistan or Iraq face exactly the same risks as our soldiers face out there.”
The head of the British Army said yesterday that the international military effort in Afghanistan had been under-resourced for years. Sir David Richards, chief of the general staff, said he hoped the surge strategy set out by US president Barack Obama would see the levels of casualties suffered by coalition troops diminish towards the end of this year. Sir David that previously the alliance had “never really had the resources... to do everything that we knew we had to do”.