`Friendly fire' officer cleared

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The Independent Online
A military court cleared an air force officer yesterday on charges of dereliction of duty relating to a "friendly fire" attack on two US helicopters over Iraq last year in which 26 people, including two British military officers, were killed.

The innocent verdict on Captain Jim Wang, the senior officer aboard an air surveillance plane which incorrectly identified the two helicopters, brought the official investigation into the accident to a close. In recent months criminal charges against six other officers connected to the case were dropped.

On the morning of 14 April last year Captain Wang's Airborne Warning and Control System (AWAC) radar plane was monitoring the allies' no-fly zone over northern Iraq.

He was accused in the court martial of failing to notify the pilots of two F-15 jet-fighters that there were friendly helicopters in the area. The pilots shot down two US Blackhawk helicopters after mistaking them for Iraqi aircraft.

The helicopters were carrying members of an international group that had been working with the Kurds in northern Iraq since the end of the 1991 war. Fifteen of the victims were Americans. Other passengers included five Kurds employed by the United States and officers from France and Turkey.

Outside the military court in Oklahoma City after the verdict had been handed down the widow of one of the helicopter pilots killed, Kaye Mounsey, held up a photograph of her husband's charred remains and wept. "They are going to walk away and have peace with themselves. I have a little daughter who will never know her father and it's not right. Jim Wang is going to go home tonight and play with his children."

But the top legal officer of the US Air Force, Major-General Nolan Skulte, declared that justice had been done. "An incident like this does not necessarily mean that the conduct of all those involved rises to the level of criminal culpability."

In Washington William Perry, the Defence Secretary, defended the verdict, noting that some officers had been punished with sanctions which would adversely affect their chances of promotion.

Seven officers, including the two F-15 pilots and three members of the crew of Wang's radar-monitoring plane, received letters of reprimand or admonishment, which can hurt their chances of promotion, the Pentagon said.

Also, a member of Wang's crew received an Article 15, a more severe administrative penalty that can result in docked pay, confinement to quarters, reassignment to a lesser job or some other punishment. The name of the person receiving the Article 15 and the specific punishment were not revealed.

Captain Wang, however, declared himself unsatisfied with the conclusion of the case, deeming it to be premature. "I want to say the fight's nowhere near over. For me this is just a victory in one battle. There are still two helicopters shot down and 26 lives lost. This court martial is one small piece in the puzzle." He called for another Air Force investigation and congressional hearings if necessary.

The Britons who died were Lieutenant-Colonel Jonathon Swann, 51, of the Royal Artillery, who came from the Western Isles and Major Harry Shapland, 28, of the Royal Irish Guards.

Captain Wang, 29, said he did not know whether he would remain in the air force.