Michael Pritchard inquest: Soldier accidentally shot

L/Cpl Michael Pritchard L/Cpl Michael Pritchard died after being shot in Afghanistan in December 2009

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A soldier believed to have been killed by a British sniper in Afghanistan was accidentally shot while on active service, a coroner has said.

L/Cpl Michael Pritchard, of the 4th Regiment, Royal Military Police, was shot dead in Sangin in 2009.

A post-mortem report read out at the inquest revealed the 22-year-old soldier died of a single gunshot wound to the chest and abdomen.

East Sussex coroner Alan Craze recorded a narrative verdict.

L/Cpl Pritchard, who was born in Maidstone, Kent, but lived in Eastbourne, East Sussex, had been deployed to observation post N30 to watch a blind spot on the road and make sure Taliban insurgents were not planting improvised explosive devices (IEDs).

'Hornets' nest'

The inquest heard that it was thought the bullet was fired from another remote observation post, known as a sangar, by L/Cpl Malcolm Graham, of the Royal Scots Borderers, 1st Battalion, who thought he was shooting at insurgents laying IEDs.

Helen Perry: Michael Pritchard's death was "tragically all too predictable"

He said a number of factors including poor communication had played a part, but the basic reason for the tragedy was the failure of the organisation which would have prevented "blue-on-blue" contact.

The coroner said erroneous decisions were made, but L/Cpl Pritchard's death was an accident, although an avoidable one.

He said: "I am inclined to the view that there were no insurgents there at all.

"If that is the case how did this fatal misunderstanding come about?"

Analysis

The coroner Alan Craze summed up this tragic story as "fundamentally an accident, albeit an avoidable accident". Through the six days of evidence the court heard how Lance Corporal Michael Pritchard's unit were tired and had a heightened sense of danger. They'd been sent to the Sangin Valley, arguably the most dangerous part of Helmand at the time. A member of the unit had lost his leg to a roadside bomb just days earlier. There was a sense that they'd arrived in a hornet's nest.

They'd been ordered to protect a key route from the Taliban. But the coroner noted that none of the soldiers had been there long enough to adjust to their surroundings. Some soldiers were not briefed on the precise locations of observation posts where their own troops were stationed. There were blind spots and problems with radio communications.

The coroner concluded that the "basic reason for the tragedy was the failure of organisation systems to prevent blue on blue contacts".

Mistakes were clearly made. But it was the confusion often described as "the fog of war".

Mr Craze said the soldiers were tired, facing heightened vulnerability and had found themselves in circumstances that were not calm or rational.

"There was an overriding sense that they had arrived in a hornets' nest in a war zone and that they had to win," he said.

"So although there was no gung-ho or snap happy attitude they were there to engage insurgents."

The coroner said it would never be known if messages were sent and not received.

But he said everything of importance had eventually filtered through, so he could not blame the tragedy entirely on communications failure.

Mr Craze said the situation had been exacerbated by an inadequate briefings system and lack of understanding about where the restricted firing line was.

'Fear in his voice'

After the hearing, the dead soldier's father Gary Pritchard said: "We hope and trust that the Army will take steps to ensure that this event should not happen again.

"It is clear to me that there are lessons to be learnt."

L/Cpl Pritchard's mother Helen Perry said her son phoned her three times in the week before he died and she could hear fear in his voice.

Ms Perry said: "Nobody in command took any action to rectify the situation and subsequently nobody has taken any responsibility for Michael's death. He has received no apology."

She said radio and communication problems, procedures that were not robust and poor leadership meant her son was observed for more than an hour by seven people who all thought they were looking at insurgents.

"There was an onus on the people who were higher up the chain to take control and rectify the situation in order to save Michael's life," she added.

Lt Col Nadine Parks, commanding officer of 4th Regiment Royal Military Police, said L/Cpl Pritchard was a brave, professional soldier who made a huge impact on the regiment.

She said the soldier, who was based for a time at Aldershot, Hampshire, had an inner integrity and sincerity that made him committed to his duty.

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