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Hoon is sorry for soldier's death.

Byline: By Bill Jacobs

Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon said today he was "extremely sorry" about the death of a tank commander who died in Iraq after being ordered to hand back body armour.

Sergeant Steven Roberts' widow Samantha has strongly criticised Mr Hoon over the affair.

While expressing his regret about the incident, Mr Hoon declined today to say he was prepared to step down.

And Newcastle North MP Doug Henderson said the fact that Sgt Roberts had to give up his body armour indicated the haste of the rush for war but he did not think it was a resigning matter for Mr Hoon.

Former Defence Secretary Mr Henderson said: "I think it shows that our political masters were desperate to go to war in Iraq regardless of what the consequences were.

"It is an absolute tragedy for his widow who must be properly treated but I don't think it is a resignation issue.

"We did get the equipment there but it wasn't in the right place to be used. I obviously regret his death and what it means for the widow but I don't see that Mr Hoon should quit."

Interviewed on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, Mr Hoon said: "I am extremely sorry that Sgt Roberts did not have the enhanced body armour which we expected that he would receive.

"Some 38,000 sets of that enhanced body armour were sent to theatre. We wanted him to have that equipment, I'm extremely sorry that he did not have it."

Pressed on whether he would resign, Mr Hoon replied by insisting that ministers were assured by commanders ahead of last year's conflict that the military forces were "ready for action".

Overall, the campaign had been "a remarkable military success", he insisted.

But asked whether he expected to be in his job in a month's time - the Hutton inquiry into the death of Government weapons expert Dr David Kelly will report on January 28 - Mr Hoon said: "I accept that there are always difficulties faced by all politicians, not least in the position that I have held for more than four years.

"I am always aware of those pressures.

"What I would hope is that people are fair and balanced about the job that I have to do, they don't apply hindsight to their judgments, and they consider overall the success of Britain's armed forces, not only in Iraq, but in Afghanistan, Sierra Leone and the Balkans."

Mr Hoon was asked whether he would be apologising to Mrs Roberts when he meets her again.

Mr Hoon said: "I have already had a long and detailed meeting with Mrs Roberts in which I expressed my sorrow about the death of her husband and about the deaths of the other 55 men who have died since combat operations began in Iraq." He continued: "It is important that when I see Mrs Roberts again... that we have a full exchange about what happened to her husband as best we can say at this stage."

Mr Hoon dismissed a suggestion he had misled people about meeting her again during comments he made to the Commons on Tuesday.

He said: "I think if you check the record... I said `I have also met her personally and I have indicated that I would be willing to do so again'."

Asked when he will meet her again, Mr Hoon said: "As soon as is convenient as far as she is concerned. It is a question of finding a date, I hope early next week.

"She has certainly been offered a number of times next week when I would be delighted to see her."
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Copyright 2004 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Publication:Evening Chronicle (Newcastle, England)
Date:Jan 16, 2004
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