Elite division 'sickened' by sergeant's grenade attack

By Andrew Buncombe
Monday 24 March 2003 01:00
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The main suspect in a hand-grenade attack that left one soldier dead and 14 wounded at the headquarters of the US 101st Airborne Division was revealed yesterday to be a member of the elite force.

The suspect, named last night as Asan Akbar, a sergeant from an engineering platoon who had been assigned to the so-called Screaming Eagles, was seized shortly after the incident in which the division's tented command centre was attacked with three grenades. He was found hiding in a nearby bunker after missing a roll-call.

"When this all happened we tried to account for everybody," Colonel Frederick Hodges said. "We noticed a number of hand grenades were missing and that this sergeant was unaccounted for. We started looking for him and found him hiding here in one of these bunkers. He is detained and he is being interrogated right now."

Television footage shot in the aftermath of the explosion showed the injured being carried away on stretchers, followed by the capture of the sergeant. He was forced to lie face down in the dirt as he was handcuffed by an armed colleague. The incident happened at about 1.30am yesterday local time (10.30pm GMT Saturday) at Camp Pennsylvania, the desert camp in Kuwait where the division's 1st Brigade has been based in preparation for the move into southern Iraq.

A single grenade had been rolled into each of the three tents that make up the area used as a command centre and staffed by officers and senior enlisted personnel, witnesses said.

George Heath, a spokesman for the 101st Airborne's home base in Fort Campbell, Kentucky, said the soldier who had died at the scene had not been named because his family had yet to be notified.

Eleven of the 14 injured, most with superficial injuries, including puncture wounds to their arms and legs, were evacuated by helicopter to field hospitals in the area. Three of the soldiers were suffering from unspecified serious injuries.

The explosions sent a wave of fear through the camp, the initial thought being that it was an attack by anti-American radicals or al-Qa'ida fighters. Television pictures showed soldiers running around in gas masks. Security at the bases and of military columns as they move forward into battle has been a concern for officers.

The discovery that the attack had apparently been made by a US soldier saw those fears rapidly switch to anger and bewilderment.

"It's obvious when you hear that someone from here has been injured or harmed, it's a sickening experience to think that it's someone that you know who may be responsible," said the Rev Gerald Baker, 10 per cent of whose congregation at Hopkinsville, north of Fort Campbell, is made up of army personnel. "You wonder what is wrong with them or what they must have been struggling with. This is a difficult situation for us here. The immediate response is that people start to pray."

The motive behind the attack was still not clear and an investigation was under way. Max Blumenfeld, a US army spokesman, said the cause of the incident "most likely was resentment". He declined to elaborate further.

The suspect was described as having been "acting strangely" in recent days after being told he would not be joining forces moving into Iraq. One military source said the man was an American Muslim, a claim which had earlier been denied by the authorities.

As part of the investigation into the incident two contract workers at the camp, both reportedly of Middle Eastern origin, were being questioned.

The sergeant had not been charged.

The 101st Airborne is a rapid-deployment group, trained to go anywhere in the world within 36 hours. The last time the entire division was deployed was in 1991, during the last Gulf War.

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