Aussie claim about comrade's Afghan death rejected

AP News
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Posted: Feb 01, 2012 10:58 PM
Aussie claim about comrade's Afghan death rejected

A military inquiry on Thursday rejected an Australian soldier's allegations that a comrade died unnecessarily during a gunbattle in Afghanistan because the U.S.-led coalition provided inadequate air support.

An unidentified soldier who fought in the battle on Aug. 24, 2010, near the village of Derapet in central Uruzgan province made the claim in an email that was published a month later in several Australian newspapers. The allegations fueled fears the United States was more concerned about avoiding Afghan civilian casualties than protecting the lives of coalition partner soldiers.

The soldier claimed that the intense firefight that pitted 40 Australian and Afghan soldiers against up to 100 insurgents would have ended before Lance Cpl. Jared MacKinney was shot dead if their patrol had been supported by U.S. mortar fire and more air cover.

"That contact would have been over before Jared died if they gave us mortars," the email said. "Everyone is too scared of collateral damage," the soldier added, referring to civilian casualties.

"Air (support) took time ... and when it finally turned up, it flew around for about 25 minutes," the soldier added.

Australia's Vice Chief of Defense, Air Marshal Mark Binskin, said Thursday that an Australian military inquiry into the fatality and the allegations contained in the email found "no evidence of any substantial weakness or deficiency that contributed to his death."

MacKinney, 28, had been killed instantly by a single bullet about 30 minutes into the two hour and half hour battle. He was the only fatality among the Australian and Afghan troops, who inflicted "significant enemy casualties," Binskin said, citing the report. The email reported 20 Taliban deaths.

Binskin said U.S. F-18 Super Hornet jet fighters had been available, but using them in such close combat would have risked casualties among soldiers as well as civilians. Similarly, decisions were made not to use available U.S. 120 mm mortars or Excalibur 155 mm guided artillery shells because of the risk to troops.

A single Excalibur precision shell was fired late in the battle before the coalition force withdrew.

The inquiry endorsed the choice of support used: two Australian armored vehicles firing 25 mm chain guns and two U.S. AH-64 Apache helicopters that repeatedly strafed the enemy with 30 mm cannons.

Binskin said the soldier who wrote the email had been interviewed as part of the inquiry and faced no disciplinary action. The email "did not represent a genuine complaint _ simply an expression of grief," Binskin said.

"Understandably at the time the soldier wrote the email, he was grieving and searching for something to blame for the death of his close friend," Binskin added.

MacKinney's family has told the Defense Department they do not intend to make any media comment on the report.

Australia has 1,550 troops in Afghanistan, the largest force provided by any country outside NATO. MacKinney was the 21st of Australia's 32 casualties in the decade-old war.