Word of Prince Harry's military exploits sparks fear of reprisals
The Associated Press
Published Tuesday, January 22, 2013 9:00AM EST
Last Updated Tuesday, January 22, 2013 1:39PM EST
LONDON -- Prince Harry's admission that he killed Taliban fighters while working as a helicopter gunner in Afghanistan drew intense British media coverage Tuesday and sparked concerns about possible reprisals.
The 28-year-old prince spoke in a pooled interview published late Monday after he was safely out of Afghanistan. He had spent the last 20 weeks deployed as a co-pilot and gunner in a heavily armed Apache attack helicopter.
Asked if he had killed from the cockpit, the third-in-line to the British throne said: "Yeah, so, lots of people have."
The response was immediate Tuesday: The Daily Mirror tabloid ran a page-one headline "Royal Sensation Harry: I Killed Taliban" along with a photo of a macho-looking Harry in combat gear and designer shades.
Other newspapers ran similar gung-ho stories about the prince's military exploits. "Harry: I Have Killed" was the story in the Daily Mail.
Video shot during the prince's deployment was shown dozens of times on Britain's major news networks.
In Parliament on Tuesday, Defence Minister Mark Francois praised Harry, saying the prince should be commended for his bravery.
He "has done well for his country," Francois said, offering kind words for a prince who has occasionally embarrassed the royal family, most recently by being photographed naked as he played strip billiards at a Las Vegas hotel.
Many in Harry's family have also seen combat -- most recently his uncle, Prince Andrew, who flew Royal Navy helicopters during the 1982 Falklands War. Prince Philip, his grandfather, served on Royal Navy battleships during World War II.
Not everyone was applauding the soldier-prince.
Lindsey German, leader of the Stop the War Coalition, called Harry's comments "arrogant and insensitive" and raised the prospect that Harry might have accidently targeted Afghan civilians.
Former officer Charles Heyman, who edits a yearbook on British forces, said the prince's words may raise the already high threat level against him.
"The royal family are all targets, and he now probably becomes the prime target, royal family-wise," Heyman said. "But he can live with that. He's a soldier, he knows what he's doing."
Heyman said it was commendable that Harry had undertaken such a dangerous and demanding military job.
"By and large, the world's elite make sure their sons and daughters go nowhere near the firing line. So it brings credit to the royal family, and it's good for army morale, that Harry's not sitting back in London saying, 'Well done, boys!"' he said.
Heyman said as an Apache gunner, Harry would have opened fire when directed to do so by a ground controller who would most likely have been under enemy fire. The prince typically would have been firing at Taliban forces in bunkers or protected in some way, not at troops out in the open, said the former officer.
"They would have been opening fire to relieve pressure on the ground, maybe even to rescue people on the ground," Heyman explained. "If he was using machine-guns, there is no way he could say categorically he destroyed the target. But if he was using the Hellfire missiles against a bunker, he would be able to say categorically that he destroyed the target."
If there's a large explosion and no more enemy fire from the target area, the gunner can be "pretty sure" the enemy has been killed, Heyman said.
Col. Richard Kemp, a former British commander in Afghanistan, said the fevered press response to Harry's words reflected a certain naivety about the realities of war.
"He's flying an attack helicopter armed with missiles and machine-guns, and its purpose is predominantly to come in and provide fire support for troops fighting the Taliban, so it would be very, very surprising if he didn't swoop in and kill," Kemp said.
He said Harry's tone was appropriate in the interview.
"I know it's a delicate subject, but I'm surprised by how much people have seized on what he said," Kemp said. "If he'd been bragging about killing, that would have been wrong, but he didn't brag about it."