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RSF investigates US military strike on Baghdad's Palestine Hotel

(RSF/IFEX) - The following is an RSF press release:

"Two murders and a lie"

An investigation of the US Army's firing at the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad on 8 April 2003

Reporters Without Borders called today for the reopening of the enquiry into who was really responsible for the US Army's "criminal negligence" in shooting at the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad on 8 April 2003 and causing the death of two journalists - Ukrainian cameramen Taras Protsyuk (of Reuters news agency) and Spaniard José Couso (of the Spanish TV station Telecinco).

The call came in a report of the press freedom organisation's own in-depth investigation of the incident, which gathered evidence from journalists in the hotel at the time, from others "embedded" with US Army units and from the US military soldiers and officers who were directly involved.

The report said US officials at first lied about what happened and then, in an official statement four months later, exonerated the US Army from any mistake or error of judgement. The report provides only some of the truth about the incident, which needs to be further investigated to establish exactly who was responsible.

Pentagon spokespersons said right from the start that an M1 Abrams tank opened fire on the hotel in legitimate self-defence in response to "enemy fire" coming from the hotel or the area around it. This line was maintained and emphasised at the highest official level in the days that followed.

Sgt. Shawn Gibson, the 3rd Infantry Division (3ID) tank gunner who fired the fatal shot, and his immediate superior, Capt. Philip Wolford, who authorised it, denied they had fired because of shooting from the hotel. They said the 4-64 Armor Company of the 3ID's 2nd Brigade, which was stationed on the Al-Jumhuriya Bridge soon after US troops entered Baghdad, was in fact seeking to neutralise an Iraqi "spotter" monitoring and reporting on US military activity.

Some of this data caused the US Army to change its line slightly in its official report released on 12 August 2003. It did not speak of direct shooting but of an "enemy hunter/killer team" which required a response in legitimate self-defence. This too was a lie - by omission.

By focusing only on the rules of combat, the US authorities have remained silent about the real cause of the tragedy. The Reporters Without Borders investigation found that the soldiers in the field were never told the hotel was full of journalists.

The US shelling of the hotel was not a deliberate attack on journalists and the media. It was the result of criminal negligence.

At the bottom level, Capt. Wolford and Sgt. Gibson reacted as soldiers in a battle situation. They directly caused the death of the journalists and wounded three others, but should not really be held responsible because they did not have information that would have made them aware of the consequences of firing at the hotel.

Their immediate superiors - battalion commander Lt. Col. Philip DeCamp and brigade commander Col. David Perkins - also appear to not be responsible. Their reactions and the accounts of embedded journalists indicate they too had not been properly informed by their own superiors.

At a higher level, the headquarters of 3ID commander Gen. Buford Blount bears a heavy responsibility. The Division's command had access to information from the Pentagon, from the US Central Command Doha base (in Qatar) and from the media.

It is inconceivable that the massive presence of journalists at the hotel for three weeks prior to the shelling, which was known by any TV viewer and by the Pentagon itself, could have passed unnoticed. Yet this presence was never mentioned to the troops in the field or marked on the maps used by artillery support soldiers. The question is whether this information was withheld deliberately, out of contempt or through negligence.

At the top level, the US government must bear some of the responsibility. Not just because it is the government and has supreme authority over its army in the field, but also because its top leaders made false statements about the incident several times. They also spoke regularly of the dangers journalists faced in Iraq.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer stressed on 28 February the Pentagon's advice to the media to pull their journalists out of Baghdad before the war began. Asked whether this was a veiled threat to "non-embedded" reporters, he said: "If the military says something, I strongly urge all journalists to heed it. It is in your own interests, and your family's interests. And I mean that."

The argument that journalists had been warned of the danger reappeared in the Army's 12 August report. This amounted to creating two kinds of journalists - those who were "embedded" and therefore able to report on the fighting while under the protection of US forces and those who were advised to leave the war zone or face being ignored.

The Pentagon thereby refused to accept any responsibility for the deaths of the two journalists.

The Reporters Without Borders investigation was carried out by French journalist Jean-Paul Mari, with help from the French weekly magazine Le Nouvel Observateur, which Reporters Without Borders warmly thanks.

The full report is available at http://www.rsf.org and includes photos, charts and maps.

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