Taliban attack on Harry base: 19 dead

Insurgents claim they were targeting the prince but Army says initial motive was revenge for US anti-Islamic film

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The Independent Online

Taliban insurgents have launched an assault in significant numbers on Camp Bastion, the sprawling Nato coalition complex in Helmand province in Afghanistan where Prince Harry is stationed. The attack was repelled, but not before two US Marines and an estimated 17 attackers were killed.

The assault – by Taliban armed with mortars, rockets or rocket-propelled grenades, as well as automatic weapons – came on Friday night on the north-east side of the base. The prince, known as Captain Wales in the Army, was about a mile away with other crew members of the Apache helicopters, of which he is a co-pilot gunner, when the attack on Camp Bastion took place.

Qari Yousef Ahmadi, a spokesman for the Taliban, told the Associated Press: "We attacked that base because Prince Harry was also on it and so they can know our anger. Thousands more suicide attackers are ready to give up their lives for the sake of the Prophet."

Other media organisations reported that the attack was in retaliation for the anti-Islamic film Innocence of Muslims, produced by shadowy characters in California. Protests against this, and especially its portrayal of the Prophet in a 14-minute segment of the film circulating on the internet, have ignited the Muslim world in recent days, leading to the deaths of around a dozen people.

The scale of demonstrations eased yesterday, although further deaths from Friday's clashes were reported and there was a large and unexpected protest in Sydney, where police fought a crowd of 200.

Al-Qa'ida, based in Yemen on the Arabian Peninsula, yesterday praised Tuesday's killing of Chris Stevens, the US ambassador to Libya, and called for more attacks on US embassies in Arab countries.

But several leaders across the Middle East and North Africa yesterday called for restraint, advice which apparently was being heeded. The top religious authority in Saudi Arabia said Muslims should not be "dragged by anger" into violence, adding that the film could not truly hurt Islam.

Tunisia's governing moderate Islamist party yesterday condemned the attack on the US embassy in Tunis and the adjacent American school, saying that such violence threatens the country's progress toward democracy.

Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, the Californian linked to the making of the film, a man who has a conviction for bank fraud, was yesterday interviewed by officers investigating whether he had breached the terms of his probation. This bars him from using computers or the internet for five years without express approval. Nakoula, however, went to a police station voluntarily and was not under arrest.

Friday night's attack happened near an airfield on the side of the Afghan base occupied by American forces in Camp Leatherneck, a neighbouring base. The militants managed to breach the perimeter before being driven back by forces inside the camp. A number of aircraft, hangars and other buildings were hit and badly damaged by insurgent fire.

A Ministry of Defence source said: "After saying this attack was mounted in reaction to the video, it is entirely predictable that the Taliban have changed their tune to say it was aimed at Captain Wales. The insurgency who mounted this attack were nowhere near Captain Wales, who with other UK and Isaf [International security assistance force] personnel was under lockdown."

Prince Harry, who was 28 yesterday, arrived in Afghanistan for his second tour of duty nine days ago. There will now be questions about the wisdom of him serving on the front line, and whether his being there exacerbates the dangers to other British service personnel.

Major Charles Heyman, a former infantry officer and military analyst, said he believed military officials should not withdraw the prince from Afghanistan. He said: "On balance, I think the right move is to keep him there and let's just get on with it."

Tory MP Colonel Bob Stewart, a former commander of British troops in Bosnia, said he did not think the prince should be pulled out of Afghanistan because of the attack by the Taliban. "To hell with them," he said. "Harry wants to go there, and our soldiers want him there. He should stay."

But he stressed the security considerations for the prince were flexible. "These things aren't set in concrete. If circumstances really change, then we'll make different judgments." He added: "Capturing, killing or hurting Prince Harry would be a huge propaganda coup for the Taliban."

In a separate incident, a British soldier from 1st Battalion Grenadier Guards was killed by a roadside bomb yesterday. He died when his vehicle hit an improvised explosive device in the Nahr-e Saraj district of Helmand province.

Desert danger

Kim Sengupta

The Taliban were not slow to address the news agenda – not only was the attack on Camp Bastion in revenge for the US film about Mohamed, but it also targeted a special resident. "Thousands more suicide attackers are ready to give up their lives for the Prophet," declared Qari Yousef Ahmadi. "We attacked that base because Prince Harry was also on it and so they can know our anger."

Now that Harry is an Apache pilot the Taliban know where he lives. But the insurgents would not find it easy to carry out such operations on a routine basis. Bastion was built in the desert so attacks could be seen coming; perimeter defences will undoubtedly now be tightened.

Most importantly, Harry's fellow servicemen and women do not seem to feel that he jeopardises their lives.

One Apache pilot, who has served in Helmand and is due to return there, could not envisage the prince being brought back to the UK. "Can you imagine what a propaganda coup that would be for the Taliban? He is meant to be there for four months and we fully expect him to finish his stint."