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Prince joins action on the battle front; Harry's secret deployment in jeopardy after US website breaks news blackout agreed by British Press and MOD.

Byline: By John Bingham

PRINCE Harry has been fighting the Taliban on the front line in Afghanistan, the Ministry of Defence confirmed yesterday.

The 23-year-old Household Cavalry officer has spent the past 10 weeks secretly serving in warravaged Helmand Province.

The deployment had been cloaked in secrecy under a news blackout deal agreed across the UK media to prevent details reaching the Taliban and endangering Harry and his comrades.

But the arrangement broke down after news was leaked on the US website the Drudge Report.

As part of the deal, a group of journalists had visited the prince in Helmand on condition that details would only be publicised once he was safely back in the UK.

The deal was arranged after Harry's planned tour to Iraq last year had to be cancelled because of a security risk sparked by publicity.

Chief of the General Staff Sir Richard Dannatt, head of the British Army, said he was disappointed the news had leaked.

"I am very disappointed that foreign websites have decided to run this story without consulting us," he said.

"This is in stark contrast to the highly responsible attitude that the whole of the UK print and broadcast media, along with a small number of overseas, who have entered into an understanding with us over the coverage of Prince Harry on operations.

"After a lengthy period of discussion between the MoD and the editors of regional, national and international media, the editors took the commendable attitude to restrain their coverage.

"I would like to thank them for that and I do appreciate that once the story was in the public domain, they had no choice but to follow suit.

"What the last two months have shown is that it is perfectly possible for Prince Harry to be employed just the same as other Army officers of his rank and experience.

"His conduct on operations in Afghanistan has been exemplary. He has been fully involved in operations and has run the same risks as everyone else in his battle group.

"In deciding to deploy him to Afghanistan, it was my judgment that with an understanding with the media not to broadcast his whereabouts, the risk was manageable.

"Now that the story is in the public domain, the Chief of Defence Staff and I will take advice from the operational commanders about whether his deployment can continue.

"I now appeal to the media to restrain from attempting to report Prince Harry's every move and return to our understanding."

After the disappointment over Iraq, when Harry was due to work as a Scimitar light tank troop leader, he retrained as a battlefield air controller known as a JTAC (Joint Terminal Attack Controller) with a view to going to Afghanistan.

He flew out on December 14, two months into the current winter tour. No decision has been made on whether it is safe for Harry to remain in Afghanistan now that news has broken.

A Ministry of Defence spokesman said: "The operational chain of command is now looking at a variety of options."

Harry was due to complete a four month tour without the standard two-week R&R break other soldiers enjoy.

The prince admitted just last week, in a media interview due to be reported on his safe return, that he could be a target for Taliban-supporting extremists in the UK.

"Once this film comes out there'll probably be every single person, every single person that supports them will be trying to slot me," he said. "Now that you come to think about it, it's quite worrying."

Inayat Bunglawala, from the Muslim Council of Britain, said that if Harry remains in Afghanistan his life could be in danger. "If he is still there I am sure many

Afghans opposed to the British presence in Afghanistan will see him as a high-value target," he said. "We wish both him and his colleagues in the Army are brought back from Afghanistan out of harm's way."

Society of Editors director Bob Satchwell said: "Editors deserve General Dannatt's praise. This was a big story which could have been broken at any time over the last eight months.

"They showed restraint simply so that Prince Harry and his colleagues in the war zone were not put in any extra danger." He added: "The MoD fulfilled their side of the understanding by arranging pooled access to the Prince and his unit. This was a model of how an organisation can work sensibly with the media by taking editors into their confidence and trusting their good sense."

PRINCE Harry said he hopes the Britishpublic will greet the news he has been serving in Afghanistan with a simple: "So what".

The 23-year-old, who was told he couldnot go to Iraq last year because of hishigh-profile position, admitted that thedisappointment made him wish he was not a prince. "I wish that quite a lotactually," he said .But asked how he hoped the news of his secret tour of duty in HelmandProvince would be viewed, he added thathe hoped people would say: "Good onhim". And he called for commentators who branded him a "coward" for not goingto Iraq to "eat their words".

CAPTION(S):

ACTION MAN: Prince Harry sits with a group of Gurkha soldiers at the observation post close to FOB Delhi (forward operating base), in Helmand province, Afghanistan. ROUGHING IT: Prince Harry sits on his camp bed in his accommodation at FOB Delhi (forward operating base).
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Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Date:Feb 29, 2008
Words:905
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