U.S. Probe Clears Soldiers in Deadly Attack on Baghdad Hotel
The probe focused on whether the crew of a U.S. tank acted properly when it fired one 120-millimeter tank round into the 17th floor of the Palestine Hotel, home base for nearly 100 journalists covering the battle in Baghdad.
American forces “properly fired upon a suspected enemy hunter/killer team in a proportionate and justifiably measured response,” according to a statement issued from the U.S. Central Command, which oversees coalition operations in Iraq.
“The action was fully in accordance with the Rules of Engagement,” the statement said.
The tank round killed Taras Protsyuk, a 35-year-old Ukrainian cameraman for Reuters, and José Couso, a 37-year-old Spanish cameraman working for the television network Telecinco. The journalists had been filming the fighting from the hotel balconies, witnesses reported. Three other Reuters cameramen were wounded from the blast.
The Central Command cited “the fierce enemy resistance” between April 7-8 in that area of Baghdad, and said Iraqi forces were firing “from the roofs and windows of surrounding buildings.”
“The enemy had repeatedly chosen to conduct its combat activities from throughout the civilian areas of Baghdad,” and utilized “the Palestine Hotel and the areas immediately around it as a platform for military operations,” the military’s statement said.
Soldiers saw what they believed to be an enemy observer and sniper on an upper-story balcony of the 18-story building, and “they also witnessed flashes of light, consistent with enemy fire, coming from the same general location as the building,” according to the Central Command statement.
The soldiers then fired a single tank round at the building, and only later learned the building was actually the Palestine Hotel and served as the home base for many correspondents covering the war.
U.S. Central Command concluded that the “activities on the balcony of the Palestine Hotel were consistent with that of an enemy combatant” and therefore U.S. forces acted in “self-defense.”
“Baghdad was a high intensity combat area and some journalists had elected to remain there despite repeated warnings of the extreme danger of doing so,” according to a summary of the military’s report.
The Central Command, however, said “the United States has the deepest sympathies for the families of those who were killed” and called the journalists’ deaths a tragedy.
Reporters Without Borders, a Paris-based media advocacy group, on Wednesday rejected the U.S. military’s conclusion that the U.S. forces were acting in self-defense in firing on the Palestine Hotel.
“All the facts at our disposal indicate exactly the opposite, that there are no grounds for claiming self-defense, and saying this is a lie,” Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Robert Ménard said.
“These findings are the umpteenth U.S. military version of what happened on 8 April and they all contradict each other,” he said.
On Wednesday, the Committee to Protect Journalists, a New York-based media rights organization, said it was “troubled by the [U.S. military's] results of the Palestine Hotel inquiry.”
“It is troubling that the results of the investigation..do not address the central question of whether U.S. commanders were aware they were firing on a hotel full of journalists,” CPJ deputy director Joel Simon said in a press release Wednesday. “We hope that the full report deals with these issues and provides more specific information. We call on the Pentagon to make the full report public.”
Last May, CPJ had conducted its own investigation of the incident and found no evidence that hostile fire was directed at American forces from the Palestine Hotel. The group’s report concluded that the deaths of the two journalists could have been avoided because Pentagon officials and field commanders in Baghdad were aware of the hotel’s location, and that it was full of journalists.