6/07/2005

Judge wants to question U.S. troops on Iraq deaths

MADRID (Reuters) - A Spanish judge wants to question three U.S. soldiers as suspects in the death of a Spanish cameraman who was killed when a U.S. tank fired on a hotel housing foreign journalists during the 2003 assault on Baghdad.

The Pentagon has found no fault with the soldiers, but High Court Judge Santiago Pedraz wants to question the three men who were in the tank, a court official said on Tuesday.

Telecinco cameraman Jose Couso and Reuters cameraman Taras Protsiuk died and several other people were injured by a shell fired on the Palestine Hotel in the Iraqi capital on April 8, 2003, in the U.S.-led war to topple Saddam Hussein.

The Spanish court would only have jurisdiction in the death of the Spanish citizen.

The soldiers would be questioned as suspects for murder and for crimes against the international community, which carry sentences of 15 to years in jail and 10 to 15 years respectively.

Pedraz on Tuesday agreed to send a request for U.S. cooperation in the investigation, but he is still only in the initial stages of the criminal investigation and several steps away from bringing charges.

Pedraz's investigation stems from a complaint brought by the Couso family.

Legal sources say the U.S. Army is unlikely to grant access to the soldiers, and if the case ever got far enough to warrant arrests the soldiers could only be arrested in Spain.

The judge is willing to travel to the United States to take their statements, the court official said.

A Pentagon report on the incident concluded U.S.-led forces bore "no fault or negligence."

The Pentagon released a brief summary of the report in August 2003, which ruled that American forces acted "in an appropriate manner" when they fired into the hotel, but the full report was classified.

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists obtained the 52-page report under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act and said it strengthened its own finding that the hotel shelling could have been avoided.

A U.S. Embassy spokesman had no immediate comment.

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