Afghan bomb deaths 'unacceptable' says coroner

Image caption,
Captain Daniel Shepherd was killed as he defused a bomb

A coroner has said there is an "unacceptable level of mortality" among bomb disposal experts working in Afghanistan.

Coroner Stuart Fisher made the comments as he returned a verdict of unlawful killing at an inquest in Lincoln into the death of Captain Daniel Shepherd.

Capt Shepherd was killed as he defused an improvised explosive device by hand in Helmand province in July 2009.

The coroner said it was critical that remote devices were used on bombs.

West Lincolnshire coroner Mr Fisher told the inquest that more work was needed to develop the robots.

The inquest, at Lincoln's Cathedral Centre, heard the 28-year-old bomb disposal officer had chosen not to take a robot with him.

The hearing was told that in many cases they were "more likely to detonate devices than make them safe".

Recording the verdict, Mr Fisher said: "It seems to me to be crucially important that wherever possible those working in this extremely dangerous area should seek to use remote-controlled devices.

"I would encourage the MoD [Ministry of Defence] to expedite the development of remote-controlled devices to reduce the currently unacceptable level of fatalities amongst those who carry out this unenviable and highly courageous task."

Tours of duty

The hearing was told that had Capt Shepherd used a robot he could have caused an explosion even closer to his men after activating a second bomb which, it turned out, was faulty.

Soldiers working in Afghanistan can only use robots if they are certain an area is clear of other devices and they will never try to defuse a pressure-sensitive bomb remotely.

Earlier, the coroner said men should only be used as a "last resort" to carry out the dangerous task of trying to defuse bombs.

Questioning Lieutenant Colonel Andrew Duncan as to why remote controlled robots were not used widely, Mr Fisher said: "It seems to me that when dealing with such hideously dangerous devices that human beings ought to be used as a last resort in order to defuse such items.

Lt Col Duncan said: "In an ideal world we should be putting machines before men but the machine would not have achieved the aim.

Later, the senior officer told the coroner more bomb disposal experts were needed.

'Best on market'

He said: "I was looking through images of Dan and I saw a man who was at the top of his game. He was confident.

"That confidence in his ability built confidence around him.

"I think the six-month tours which we currently do are correct but if we had the luxury of more operators, which we don't, then I believe we could come down to four-month tours."

Following the coroner's comments the Ministry of Defence said: "Countering the threat from IEDs is the top priority in making military progress in the Afghanistan campaign.

"Dragon Runner, the best remote-controlled bomb disposal robot currently on the market, has been operating in Afghanistan for over a year, adding to the range of other Counter-IED capability, including the Wheelbarrow and Chevette bomb disposal robots.

"The new Talisman Route Proving and Clearance System is also operating in Afghanistan as part of our Counter IED measures.

"We will continue to invest in this area to ensure our brave personnel have the very best equipment."

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