RELATIVES of nine British soldiers killed by "friendly fire" during the Gulf war say they are determined to prosecute the two United States Air Force pilots said to be responsible, if the government in London fails to do so.
The case is causing serious embarrassment to the British and US governments which until now have tried to dampen the relatives' anger.
The determination of the nine servicemen's families was given a powerful boost on May 18 by the outcome of a coroner's inquest in Oxford, England. The jury brought in a verdict of "unlawful killing."
The relatives' lawyer, Mark Stevens, says this meant the jury had decided unanimously that the two unnamed US pilots were guilty of manslaughter. Under British law, a verdict of unlawful killing means that an element of recklessness was involved in the deaths. It is thought to be the first time in Britain that a "friendly fire" case has resulted in such a verdict.
"We will now press for the extradition of the American pilots to be brought here to stand trial," Mr. Stevens says. "The pressure will be absolutely enormous.
"I think that the coverup that has gone on in this case has been quite extraordinary. The jury has seen through that."
The "friendly fire" case, which commanded front-page treatment in British newspapers throughout the inquest, centers on an attack on Feb. 26, 1991, by the pilots of two "tankbuster" US Air Force A-10s, who mistakenly fired Maverick missiles at two British armored troop carriers in the Iraqi desert.
At first British and Pentagon officials said the attack had occurred at night, with visibility poor. But the inquest jury was told that the incident took place in broad daylight.
Stevens says British liaison officers had given the US pilots coordinates to attack an Iraqi target 10 miles away. Instead the pilots had shot up the British column. Pentagon officials have denied that the British gave the pilots grid references.
British and American authorities have refused to name the pilots, and last week a Pentagon official told the jury in a letter that the airmen would not be giving evidence.
Learning of the jury verdict, White House officials said May 18 they did not know what it meant. "We are trying to translate it and find out what the implications are for us," the London Times quoted a presidential spokesman saying.
On May 18 a Downing Street official said the verdict was "being studied." The British Ministry of Defense said officials would consider the implications of the findings.
But the opposition Labour Party's "shadow" defense secretary, Martin O'Neill, called for a government statement and said Attorney General Sir Nicholas Lyell should consider instituting extradition proceedings against the US pilots.
The tangle of emotion and points of law thrown up by the case is unprecedented, according to Christopher Greenwood, an expert on international law at Oxford University.
"I cannot see how either the British government or the families can bring a prosecution," he says. "There is provision in international law for prosecution by opposing sides in a conflict, but not between allies."
Last week British Defense Secretary Malcolm Rifkind raised the case with his US counterpart, Richard Cheney, in Washington. Mr. Rifkind said it was "up to Mr. Cheney" to take the next step.
Stevens says the families have been fighting for information rather than compensation or retribution. They have written to the British authorities and later to President Bush, asking why the American pilots had fired on the British column, he says.
Mr. Bush met the families in September. Later their spokesman said the president had told them: "You want the facts? You'll get the facts."
The families said papers sent to them last November by the Pentagon had names, grid references, and other important details blacked out.