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Mideast edition, Friday, August 31, 2007

RAF MILDENHALL, England — U.K. officials investigating the friendly-fire deaths of three British soldiers by a bomb from a U.S. F-15 last week in Afghanistan are concerned that the U.S. will hinder the probe by blocking access to essential information and personnel.

The country’s coroners should not expect the United States to supply witnesses for testimony, according to a letter sent to coroners last month by Desmond Bowen, policy director for the British Ministry of Defence.

“The US have confirmed categorically that they will not provide witnesses to attend UK inquests in person,” the letter states. “While coroners may continue to ask for US witnesses to attend inquests in the UK, they should be aware that there will in all cases be a refusal.”

Contacted Thursday, a Pentagon official did not address the witness question directly, saying only that “ISAF, U.K. and U.S. authorities have begun investigations into this incident.

“U.S. and U.K. military authorities are cooperating fully — as they do in all such investigations — including sharing information and other investigative materials,” the official said.

Coroners in Britain serve a judicial role that is different from a coroner’s medical duties in the States.

That role comes down to determining exactly what happened in such a situation, according to André Rebello, honorary secretary for The Coroners’ Society of England and Wales.

“We help with the grieving process by finding the facts,” Rebello said.

The MOD letter, dated July 23, also states that any evidence provided by the U.S. must be returned at the conclusion of the investigation, with no copies retained.

Agreements and understandings between the two governments have resulted in investigations of British friendly-fire victims being done largely without involving U.S. personnel, according to Paul Starbrook, a spokesman with Britain’s Ministry of Defence.

“If coroners require the Americans to attend, we will continue to ask on their behalf,” Starbrook said. “But bear in mind, every request has been turned down so far.”

A joint investigation into the incident is ongoing. Information gathered will be submitted to the investigating coroner for his report.

British army Pvts. John Thrumble, 21; Robert Graham Foster, 19; and Aaron James McClure, 19, were killed last week in Afghanistan’s volatile Helmand province when an RAF Lakenheath, England-based U.S. F-15 dropped a bomb on their position after they requested close-air support against a Taliban position.

The issue of U.S. cooperation in investigations flared up here in 2003 when the U.S. government refused to release cockpit footage after a friendly-fire incident in Iraq that killed British army Lance Cpl. Matty Hull. American personnel mistakenly fired on his convey.

Andrew Walker, the deputy coroner in charge of the Hull investigation, ruled that U.S. personnel were at fault in the death and criticized the U.S. government for withholding evidence. The video was eventually leaked to the British press.

A separate U.S. investigation exonerated the personnel involved in Hull’s death.

Stars and Stripes reporter Jeff Schogol contributed to this report from the Pentagon.

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