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Prince Harry returns home after 10 weeks combat duty

Mar 02, 2008 12:21 AM IST India India

London: Prince Harry, third in line to the British throne, returned to London on Saturday after serving 10 weeks combat duty in Afghanistan. The Army High Command took the decision to send him home after a foreign magazine and a website leaked details about his whereabouts in the war-stricken country. Until then his location had remained a secret. Harry was a forward air controller (FAC) in Helmand province, and had taken part in operations against the Taliban. He's not happy to be back, but the army gave him a pat on the back for a job well done. Harry, a second lieutenant, flew home in a troop transport plane on Saturday and was received by his father, Prince Charles, and brother, Prince William. According to a British Defence Ministry release, the 23-year-old grandson of Queen Elizabeth left Afghanistan amid fears for his security and for those soldiers fighting alongside him. He was sent to Afghanistan in December, but for security reasons and in agreement with the Ministry of Defence, the British media did not report the deployment. That agreement collapsed after a website in United States leaked the news on Thursday. The ministry said the decision to withdraw him was "taken primarily on the basis that the world-wide media coverage of Prince Harry in Afghanistan could impact on the security of those who are deployed there, as well as the risks to him as an individual soldier." Harry, the son of Prince Charles and the late Princess Diana, has been active during his 10 weeks of combat, calling in air strikes against Taliban positions, carrying out foot patrols and firing a heavy-duty machine gun at suspected fighters. It is the first time a British royal has been deployed in combat since the Falklands war 25 years ago, when Harry's uncle Prince Andrew flew helicopters. After his presence became known, there were heightened concerns he could become a target of the Taliban, al Qaeda or other Islamist militants operating in Afghanistan, endangering the prince as well as fellow soldiers. The Prince is said to be angered by the latest developments following the cancellation of his planned tour of duty in Iraq last year when his security was compromised by publicity. But he will face a hero's welcome from the British public with tributes led by the Queen who said her grandson had performed "a good job in a very difficult climate". Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup said: "This decision has been taken primarily on the basis that the worldwide media coverage of Prince Harry in Afghanistan could impact on the security of those who are deployed there, as well as the risks to him as an individual soldier." He is expected to fly into an RAF base this morning in a low-key arrival. PAGE_BREAKHarry, a Blues and Royals "Cornet" or Second Lieutenant, has spent the past 10 weeks working as a battlefield air controller and Spartan reconnaissance vehicle commander across some of the troubled province's most dangerous spots. Now that he has been safely withdrawn it can be reported that until last night he was operating with a squadron of light tanks in the desert outside the former Taliban stronghold of Musa Qaleh. The vitally important town was retaken from enemy hands by British and Afghan forces in December in one of the largest coalition operations in Helmand since the start of the UK-led mission there in 2006. Just last week, the Prince was commanding a seven-strong Spartan vehicle team supporting a major US and Afghan-led operation to seize control of the village of Kariz de Baba, close to Musa Qaleh. It was part of a major push to clear a route through to the Kajaki Dam, scene of some of the most intense fighting over the past two years. Harry, who trained as a Scimitar light tank troop leader before his aborted deployment to Iraq last year, combined his new role as a "JTAC" (Joint Terminal Attack Controller) with that of commanding two vehicle crews. During the operation the light tanks provided a screen to the north-east of the settlement, preventing Taliban elements fleeing the US-led onslaught. Unrecognised by locals, the Prince interacted with Afghan civilians face to face as he stopped and searched vehicles throughout the operation. He also carried out his JTAC responsibilities from the turret of his Spartan vehicle, calling in air support including a dramatic show of force from two French Mirage jets. During his foreshortened tour, Harry enjoyed a level of anonymity he has never experienced as a member of the Royal Family. In one interview with pooled media, he commented: "I think this is about as normal as I'm ever going to get." During an earlier posting to Garmsir, the southernmost part of Helmand under allied control, the Prince was able to live and work just 500m from front line enemy trenches. His work as a JTAC involved carrying out detailed aerial surveillance behind Taliban lines and even calling in bomb strikes on confirmed enemy bunker positions. Meanwhile, Islamic radicals have branded Prince Harry’s heroics against the Taliban a mere “publicity stunt”, say reports. PAGE_BREAKOmar Bakri Mohammed, who now lives in Lebanon after being barred from Britain, said that all that Harry had done was just for the sake of publicity. “He is just doing it for publicity – for him he has been on a picnic. I do not believe he is there to engage or fight. He is there for publicity for himself and for the Royal Family. I do not think he is a threat to Al Qaeda or the Taliban,” the Daily Express quoted him as saying. Forty-nine-year-old Bakri also accused the British Government of being “irresponsible”. “They say they have an integrated society and then they are involving themselves in a war which is unjust. Harry should now come out and tell everyone what he saw and what he has experienced,” he said. “He should tell the Muslim community what he thinks and if he would go out again. He should condemn the persecution taking place and call for troops to withdraw,” he added. Anjem Choudary, Bakri’s right-hand man and former leader of British-based radicals Al Muhajiroun, said that by engaging himself in “illegal war”, Harry had made himself fair game for a terrorist attack. “He will be seen as part of the enemy and so he is a target. This is an illegal war and it should be seen in that light, and for Harry to participate has absolutely no justification. Those who want to carry out operations over here will target Harry. He is a natural target for someone that way inclined,” he said. “There have been many wiser and braver men who have decided not to participate and who have objected. They should be the ones declared as heroes. For the Royal Family to say they are custodians of the faith and then send one of their own just shows that they are toeing the Government’s line in foreign policy,” he added. Meanwhile, Andrew Rosindell, a British Conservative Member of Parliament for the Romford constituency in Greater London, condemned the outpourings by the influential Islamic radicals as “highly irresponsible”. “This is an appalling thing for them to say,” he said.