Thu, Jul 08, 2004 - Page 6 News List

`Friendly fire' pilot found guilty

DERELICTION US fighter pilot Harry Schmidt was reprimanded, fined and demoted to the National Guard for bombing hapless Canadian troops in Afghanistan in 2002

AFP , WASHINGTON

An F-16 fighter pilot who in 2002 mistakenly bombed Canadian troops in Afghanistan, killing four, was found guilty of dereliction of duty on Tuesday and reprimanded for "willful misconduct," the US Air Force said.

Besides the written reprimand, Major Harry Schmidt also forfeited US$5,672 in pay as punishment for the April 17 "friendly fire" bombing, the worst in the US war in Afghanistan.

Finding Schmidt guilty of dereliction of duty, Lieutenant General Bruce Carlson said Schmidt acted "shamefully" by ignoring orders, then lying about it and attempting to blame others for his mistake.

"You flagrantly disregarded a direct order from the controlling agency, exercised a total lack of basic flight discipline over your aircraft, and blatantly ignored the applicable rules of engagement and special instructions," Carlson wrote in a scathing letter of reprimand.

"Your willful misconduct directly caused the most egregious consequences imaginable, the deaths of four coalition soldiers and injury to eight others," he said.

"The victims of your callous misbehavior were from one of our staunch allies in Operation Enduring Freedom and were your comrades-in-arms," he said.

In Canada, a defense ministry spokesman spokesman declined to comment on the punishment.

"Given that is a US military judicial matter, it is inappropriate to comment on the appropriateness of the punishment," spokesman Darren Gibb said. "The minister [David Pratt] hopes that, given today's announcement, everyone affected ... will find the strength to cope with their pain and continue to cherish the memories of our fallen heroes."

The incident occurred when Schmidt detected what he thought was hostile fire as he flew his F-16 fighter over southern Afghanistan.

Unknown to him, Canadian troops below were engaged in a live-fire exercise at a range called Tarnak Farms, near Kandahar.

Without waiting for approval from flight controllers aboard an AWACS command plane, Schmidt declared that he was acting in self-defense and dropped a 227kg bomb that scored a direct hit on the Canadians.

Carlson said his flight leader had warned Schmidt to "make sure it's not friendlies" and a flight controller aboard the AWACS directed him "stand by" and later to "hold fire."

Schmidt, he said, should have marked the location with a targeting pod, and if he felt his aircraft was threatened should have taken evasive action.

"Instead, you closed on the target and blatantly disobeyed the direction to `hold fire.' Your failure to follow that order is inexcusable," Carlson wrote.

The general said he did not believe Schmidt had acted in self-defense but had declared it was only "as a pretext to strike a target, which you rashly decided was an enemy firing position, and about which you had exhausted your patience in waiting for clearance from the Combined Air Operations Center to engage."

"You used the inherent right of self-defense as an excuse to wage your own war," Carlson said.

The air force said Schmidt will no longer be permitted to fly air force aircraft but will continue to serve in the Illinois Air National Guard.

Schmidt had faced a court martial on the dereliction of duty charges, but on June 23 agreed to an administrative proceeding instead in which Carlson reviewed the evidence and decided on his punishment.

Schmidt, who has until Monday to appeal the punishment, presented his case last Thursday to Carlson in an hour-long session.

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