Forward air controller cleared mistaken attack, officials say

Tuesday, March 13th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ A U.S. serviceman at the scene of the accidental bombing in Kuwait directed the mistaken attack and then belatedly called on the F/A-18 Hornet pilot to abort the mission, U.S. officials said Tuesday.

Many details of the incident remain unclear, including the exact sequence of events Monday. But officials speaking on condition of anonymity Tuesday said a forward air controller mistakenly directed the Hornet's bombing and tried too late to call it off. Five American servicemen and one New Zealander were killed.

Some news reports said the ground controller was a member of the Navy, but Navy officials said they could not immediately confirm that.

The Pentagon identified the Hornet pilot as Cmdr. David O. Zimmerman, who commands the VFA-37 Hornet squadron aboard the USS Harry S. Truman, on patrol in the Persian Gulf. The squadron is home based at Oceana Naval Air Station, Va.

Zimmerman, a native of Orange Park, Fla., has more than 3,000 Navy flying hours; his decorations include the Defense Meritorious Service Medal, the Air Medal, the Navy Commendation Medal and the Navy Achievement Medal.

At the White House, press secretary Ari Fleischer said the Defense Department has been in contact with the New Zealand government and ``expressed the opinions of the government yesterday, informed them of the news.''

A U.S. Embassy official in New Zealand sent a letter of condolences to the government, said National Security Council spokeswoman Mary Ellen Countryman.

Pentagon officials are scrambling to understand what went wrong in the training exercise.

The Hornet was participating in live-fire ``close air support'' for ground troops at the Udairi bombing range near the Iraqi border when it dropped explosive ordnance ``on or near'' an observation post, the U.S. Central Command said. Those killed and injured apparently were in the target area, but it was unclear what went wrong.

The command said six were confirmed dead and five American military personnel were taken to hospital with injuries that were not life-threatening. Two of them were released.

An accident investigation board has been appointed and will arrive in Kuwait this week, the command said.

``We will work hard to take care of the families involved, and to find out how such an accident could occur,'' Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said in a statement.

The New Zealand government pressed for answers in the accident that killed one of its soldiers, acting Maj. John McNutt, 27, as well as five Americans.

``This was a live bomb basically dropped on observers. It shouldn't happen and we all need to know precisely what went wrong,'' said Defense Minister Mark Burton.

The New Zealand Army said McNutt was killed instantly.

It was the second major accident involving the U.S. Navy in a little more than a month. On Feb. 9, the submarine USS Greenville struck a Japanese fisheries training vessel while surfacing near Hawaii, sinking the Japanese vessel and leaving nine dead, including four teen-agers.

Two of the Americans killed in the Kuwait bombing accident were from the Army and two were from the Air Force, said a Pentagon official, speaking on condition of anonymity. No more was known about the fifth American killed.

One Pentagon official said an estimated 10 people were injured. A second official said no civilians were involved.

President Bush, traveling Monday in Panama City, Fla., opened a speech on his budget proposals and military spending with a brief mention of the accident.

``I'm reminded today of how dangerous service can be,'' Bush said. ``We lost some servicemen today in Kuwait in a training accident.'' He led a moment of silence for the soldiers and their families.

A leading Democrat on military issues, Missouri Rep. Ike Skelton, said, ``We cannot take for granted the hazards that our men and women in uniform face on a daily basis, in times of war as well as in times of peace.''

The accident happened at about 7 p.m. Monday in Kuwait, or 11 a.m. EST, about 28 miles from the Iraqi border, during a multinational training exercise in which ground forces direct strike aircraft to specific targets. It was not clear what went wrong.

The Navy plane was flying from the USS Harry S. Truman aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf. An official said the plane dropped what was believed to be a 500-pound gravity bomb.

``Such exercises are held quarterly for the purpose of practicing air operations against hostile ground targets in close proximity to friendly forces,'' the command said. ``The exercises involve friendly ground and airborne forces pointing out targets to friendly fighter aircraft orbiting overhead. The fighter aircraft then deliver weapons on the targets.''

The U.S. military has operated regularly from airfields and an Army base in Kuwait since the 1991 Gulf War, when a U.S.-led coalition expelled the occupying Iraqi army from the tiny Persian Gulf nation. The continuing presence of U.S. forces in Kuwait is meant as a deterrent to Iraq.

Aircraft from the Harry S. Truman battle group, such as the Hornet involved in Monday's accident, participated in a joint U.S.-British bombing of Iraqi air defense installations around Baghdad last month.