Afghanistan 'friendly fire' deaths avoidable, say families

(l-r) Captain Tom Sawyer, of the Royal Artillery, and Corporal Danny Winter, of the Royal Marines Image copyright PA
Image caption Capt Tom Sawyer, of the Royal Artillery (L), and Cpl Danny Winter, of the Royal Marines (r), died in 2009

Two British servicemen, killed in a "friendly fire" incident in Afghanistan, could still be alive if an inquiry into the Javelin weapons system had been set up, say their families.

They have demanded a broader inquiry into the conflict itself.

A coroner in Salisbury recorded a narrative verdict into the deaths of Capt Tom Sawyer and Cpl Danny Winter.

The inquest found human error and a series of "interconnected events" caused their deaths in Helmand in 2009.

Tom Sawyer, 26, from Hertfordshire, and Cpl Danny Winter, 28, of Stockport died when they were hit by a missile fired by two members of the Gurkha regiment.

A Danish officer gave the order to fire believing the men were under threat from Taliban insurgents.

Capt Sawyer, of the Royal Artillery was attached to Zulu Company, 45 Commando Royal Marines and Cpl Winter was with the mortar troop of Zulu Company, 45 Commando Royal Marines.

Image copyright BBC Sport
Image caption A joint statement from the families of the dead servicemen was read outside the inquest

Speaking after the inquest, the dead men's families called for changes in the way the military use shoulder launched missiles and for a wider government inquiry into the Afghan conflict.

"There have been six similar incidents involving the Javelin weapons system which killed Danny and Tom, resulting in five deaths and one near miss."

"We strongly believe that if an inquiry had been set up after the first of these incidents in September 2007 and communication within the army had been better, there is a good chance that Tom and Danny would not have been killed."

The families said they believed that some of the written witness statements provided by the Danish personnel were inaccurate and misleading.

"We are disappointed that the Danish personnel involved decided to stay in Denmark and not answer questions about their role so as to allow the inquest to build up a true and full account of what happened."

The Danish soldiers had declined to attend the inquest and their evidence was given by means of written statements.

They insisted that the British troops had "repeatedly" requested a Javelin be fired as they were "convinced they were soon to be attacked".

Corporal Danny Winter's parents called on political leaders to commit now to setting up the inquiry after May's General Election.

"Danny's family call now for the next government to set up a full inquiry into the Afghan War immediately after the May General Election with the bereaved and injured placed at the heart of it."

'Fatal consequences'

Coroner David Ridley, recorded a narrative conclusion after rejecting the submission from the servicemen's families that he should consider unlawful killing.

He said: "The Javelin was fired with tragic and fatal consequences."

"The system failed as such. There was an inadequate assessment of Javelin's role from the perspective of its use in an anti-personnel role," the coroner said.

Mr Ridley said bad weather was a contributory factor in the incident and "ineffective communications was a contributory factor" in the deaths of the two men.

"There were inconsistencies between the British and Danish witnesses and between Danes and other Danes."

"This was, in the main, a series of interconnected events with fatal consequences. Human error was also involved.

"I am going to submit a report [to the Ministry of Defence] over the concerns I have with radios.

"It is hard to understand how, in the 21st Century, there's still a reliance on signallers and hand written records and the absence of logs."

Mr Ridley struggled to hold back tears as he read out eulogies from the men's units.

"Capt Tom Sawyer died a hero doing the job he loved. He was an uncompromising professional.

"Cpl Danny Winter was an exceptional Royal Marine who was loyal and warm hearted."

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