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U.S. Fighter Pilots Charged with Manslaughter

Fri Sep 13, 2:56 PM ET

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Two U.S. F-16 fighter pilots have been charged with manslaughter and assault in the April "friendly fire" bombing of Canadian troops in Afghanistan ( news - web sites) that killed four soldiers and injured eight, the Air Force said on Friday.
The highly unusual criminal charges by the Air Force against Illinois Air National Guard pilots Maj. Harry Schmidt and Maj. William Umbach followed a long joint investigation by Washington and Ottawa of the April 18 bombing.

Schmidt, who launched a 500-pound laser-guided bomb on Canadian troops conducting a night live-fire exercise near Kandahar, and flight leader Umbach each face four counts of involuntary manslaughter and eight counts of assault.

Schmidt was also charged with failing to exercise flight discipline and not complying with the military "rules of engagement" in the area. And Umbach was charged with negligently failing to exercise appropriate flight command and control and ensure compliance with the rules of engagement.

In Canada, Defense Minister John McCallum called the charges "positive news." If convicted, the two pilots -- who thought they were being fired at from the ground -- could face prison terms, fines and other punishment.


The charges were the first criminal accusations against pilots in the year-old Afghan war against the al Qaeda and Taliban in which a number of friendly fire attacks killed U.S. and allied troops and Afghans. The pilots said they thought they were under attack from ground fire.

In 1999 a U.S. Marine Corps pilot aboard an assault jet that clipped an Italian gondola cable was sentenced to six months in jail on charges of conspiring to obstruct an investigation into the accident that sent 20 people on the gondola plunging to their deaths.

President Bush ( news - web sites) and Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien ordered investigations by their countries into the April attack on soldiers of the Third Battalion of the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, who had been firing only on surface targets in a recognized training ground.

"The fact that the Americans have laid such serious charges against the two pilots has proven that they have taken the deaths of our four soldiers and the injuries of eight very seriously," McCallum said.

"It's unusually severe, McCallum said adding that, "from a Canadian standpoint this is very positive news." But he stressed that the was not commenting on the guilt or innocence of the pilots.


The Air Force said on Friday that the charges, brought by the 8th Air Force based at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana were only accusations and that "both officers are presumed innocent."

Air Force Brig. Gen. Stephen Sargeant who led the investigation brought the charges.

Capt. Denice Kerr, a spokeswoman at Barksdale, said it would be up to Sargeant how to proceed, including whether to appoint an Article 32 investigation board.

Under the military's Uniform Code of Military Justice, an Article 32 Board would be like a civilian grand jury to determine the validity of the charges and whether they might be brought to military trial,

The joint U.S.-Canadian investigation concluded that Schmidt and Umbach, who thought they were being fired at, from the ground failed to use proper procedures and exercise caution.

Investigators said Schmidt did not check properly before he dropped his bomb and Umbach, an Air National Guard squadron commander, let things get out of control.

The long investigation report released in June said Umbach got permission from a nearby U.S. AWACS (airborne warning and control system) radar plane to determine the precise location of what the flight thought was surface-to-air fire. While the lead pilot was trying to get those coordinates, the pilot of the second F-16 requested permission to fire on the location.

The radar plane told the pilots to stand by, investigators said, but Schmidt provided the coordinates and then radioed that he was "rolling in, in self-defense."



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