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Last Updated: Thursday, 12 July 2007, 14:30 GMT 15:30 UK
Soldiers' deaths 'were avoidable'
Trooper David Clarke and Corporal Stephen Allbutt
The pair were killed in so-called "friendly fire"
A coroner has criticised an Army officer over a "completely avoidable tragedy" in which two British soldiers were killed by "friendly fire" in Iraq.

Andrew Walker said it was a tragedy that represented a "serious failing".

Black Watch tanks under the overall command of Lt Col Lindsay MacDuff opened fire near Basra in 2003, killing the soldiers, both from Staffordshire.

A narrative verdict was recorded in Oxfordshire on Cpl Stephen Allbutt, 35. Trooper David Clarke, 19, also died.

Mr Walker, the assistant deputy coroner, did not record an "unlawful killing" verdict because Cpl Allbutt, from Stoke-on-Trent, died in combat.

The centre of this tragedy represents a serious failing and it will fall to others to question the fitness of this officer [Lt Col MacDuff] to hold command
Andrew Walker, coroner

The body of Trooper Clarke, 19, of Littleworth, has never been found.

After the inquest, the Ministry of Defence apologised to the soldiers' families and said it would consider Mr Walker's findings to see if further action was needed.

The inquest had heard that the two soldiers, who were serving with the Queen's Royal Lancers, had been fired on by a British Black Watch tank crew.

They died just five days after the start of the Iraq war, on 25 March 2003.

'Serious failing'

Mr Walker said that Lt Col Lindsay MacDuff, who was a major commanding B Company, 1 Black Watch, at the time had "failed to appreciate" the danger the men were in when discussing platoon positions with the tank troop commander.

Maybe the mothers, fathers, husbands and wives of the soldiers in that regiment should question whether they want this man [Lt Col MacDuff] in charge. I wouldn't
Debi Allbutt, widow

Lt Col MacDuff had earlier told the inquest he had told his men about the presence of two nearby "friendly" tanks, but they said they had not been given the message.

Mr Walker concluded on Thursday that there was "no evidence" that any message had been passed to the tank commander.

A crucial radio log had gone missing, he said.

Mr Walker criticised the gaps in communication between commanding officers and said Cpl Allbutt's death followed a "catalogue of misunderstandings and failures".

He said: "The centre of this tragedy represents a serious failing and it will fall to others to question the fitness of this officer (Lt Col MacDuff) to hold command."

Prosecution call

Cpl Allbutt's widow Debie stood beside Daniel Twiddy, who was severely injured in the incident which killed her husband, as she made an emotional statement outside the coroner's court.

Regrettably, this tragic incident happened in the confused and dangerous environment that characterises war.
MoD statement

She called for Lt Col MacDuff, who has been promoted to command a regiment of the Black Watch, to be prosecuted and removed from his post.

"Maybe the mothers, fathers, husbands and wives of the soldiers in that regiment should question whether they want this man in charge. I wouldn't," she said.

She also called on the government to end the principle of "combat immunity", which appeared to prevent the coroner from recording an "unlawful killing" verdict.

'Deepest sympathies'

Mrs Allbutt told the BBC that the MoD's apology was "not good enough" because it had been issued through the media and did not extend to the injured soldiers.

In its statement, the MoD said: "We are sorry for the deaths of Cpl Allbutt and Trooper Clarke in Basra in March 2003.

"Regrettably, this tragic incident happened in the confused and dangerous environment that characterises war."

The statement also said its internal board of inquiry had identified failings that contributed to the incident and it made a number of recommendations all of which were being implemented.

Before Mr Walker gave his verdict, lawyers for the MoD indicated that they had not yet had sufficient time to consider whether any prosecutions could be made.


VIDEO AND AUDIO NEWS
Widow calls for further action


Soldiers families still have questions after the inquest



SEE ALSO
Officer recalled to army inquest
06 Jul 07 |  Staffordshire
Officer blamed over army deaths
03 Jul 07 |  Staffordshire
MoD 'hid soldier deaths details'
29 Jun 07 |  Staffordshire
Soldier laid to rest
02 May 03 |  Staffordshire

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