'US lied about deaths of journalists in the Palestine Hotel'

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The Independent Online

The shelling of the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad by an American tank, which killed two journalists and injured two others, was an act of "criminal negligence", said a report by an international media watchdog.

Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF) accused US authorities of concocting lies to hide what had happened on 8 April last year, and a subsequent official "investigation" was nothing more than a whitewash. They said the Bush administration must bear some responsibilities for the deaths as US forces entered the Iraqi capital, as well as the "cover-up" which followed.

The US government is accused of "ignoring the key to the tragedy". Despite information being available to the Pentagon, the report said "the soldiers in the field were never told that a large number of journalists were in the Palestine Hotel. If they had known they would not have fired. When they did know, they gave and received instructions and took precautions to ensure the hotel was not fired on again".

The RSF decided that the attack was not a deliberate attack on the media, and the gunner who fired the shell, Sergeant Shawn Gibson, and his commander, Captain Philip Wolford, of the 3rd Infantry Division, should not be held responsible for the deaths of the cameramen Taras Protsuyk of Reuters and Jose Couso of the Spanish television station Telecinco, and the wounding of Samia Nakhoul, a Reuters reporter and photographer, and the photographer Faleh Kheiber. The two men had not been told that 150 journalists were in the hotel, and their immediate superiors, the battalion commander Lieutenant Colonel Philip DeCamp and the brigade commander Colonel David Perkins, were similarly lacking information.

The report charges General Buford Blount, their commander, of bearing a "heavy responsibility for not providing the necessary information that would have prevented the deaths of the journalists".

The report said: "It is inconceivable that the massive presence of journalists at the Palestine Hotel ... could have passed unnoticed. The question is whether this information was withheld deliberately, because of misunderstanding or by criminal negligence."

Pentagon officials initially claimed the tank had fired in response to enemy fire. Colin Powell, the US Secretary of State, said the use of force was "justified" as the soldiers had responded to "hostile fire". Later, the official version was changed to "the soldiers who fired the shell were seeking to 'neutralise' an Iraqi 'spotter'".