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THE HERO'S HOMECOMING; HARRY IN AFGHANISTAN: BROWN PRAISES THE ROYAL TROOPER Prince leaves frontline fight against the Taliban as collapse of blackout raises fears for security.

Byline: By Stephen White

PRINCE Harry will begin a new mission today - overcoming his disappointment at being taken from the frontline.

The third in line to the throne was pulled out of Afghanistan after secretly fighting the Taliban for 10 weeks and was last night heading home on a troop transport plane.

The 23-year-old Household Cavalry officer was in war-torn Helmand Province as a battlefield air controller and Spartan light tank commander.

But the collapse of a news blackout forced defence chiefs to bring him home.

And although he is being hailed for his courage, the move will be a bitter blow to the prince.

The Ministry of Defence said they removed him on security grounds after a "detailed assessment of the risks by the operational chain of command".

A spokesman added: "The decision has been taken primarily on the basis that the 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."

The prince, who is set to receive the Operational Service Medal, revelled in his tour of duty in the desert, saying it was "as normal as I'm ever going to get".

He said he didn't want to "sit around in Windsor" and wanted to return to Afghanistan as early as this summer. But that is now in major doubt.

Harry also admitted he could be a "top target" for homegrown jihadists in the UK now he is known to have been fighting the Taliban.

Yesterday, there were postings on internet forums from self-proclaimed al-Qaeda supporters urging the Taliban to hunt and kill Harry.

One wrote: "We ask God to enable our beloved brothers in Taliban to seize this priceless booty because nothing would break the heart of his grandmother than if she lost him."

Another poster with the user name "Terror" suggested a film should be made of Harry being "slaughtered" .

And when the news broke that he was being withdrawn, they expressed regret at the missed opportunity.

One wrote: "His neck would have never have been so close to the knife."

The forums are where al-Qaeda post official messages and videos but none of the entries on Harry appeared to be statements from the leadership.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown yesterday paid tribute to the prince, saying he had "served with a great distinction".

And Defence Secretary Des Browne, on a visit to HMS Gannet Rescue Centre in Prestwick, said: "I am delighted he was able to deploy to Afghanistan and to work with those who he trained with and do what he was trained to do as a soldier.

"I think he is an example of a generation of young people who are prepared to take on these very serious and dangerous tasks for our security."

The Queen said she believed her grandson had done "a good job in a very difficult climate".

Harry was based in a former madrassa - Islamic school - along with a Gurkha regiment.

His work involved calling up allied air cover in support of ground forces and going out on patrols, when he would man the gun at the top of his Spartan armoured vehicle.

During his tour, he had to deal with a sophisticated roadside bomb that targeted his squadron of light tanks.

His convoy was held back for seven hours after the discovery of a huge improvised explosive device.

Harry said the operation to deal with the device was "pretty hot s**t".

A Russian anti-tank shell, fitted with a pressure plate to blow up when driven over by a vehicle, had been buried under gravel in a gully the squadron were about to cross.

Engineers also found a "command wire" leading towards buildings.

Harry, who as a forward air controller was responsible for any aircraft, sliced hours off the operation by intercepting a helicopter carrying a Gurkha bomb disposal team and persuading it to change its landing spot nearer to the site of the device than planned.

Harry said: "It's rare when you actually manage to persuade Brigade to change their minds."

Soldiers who fought alongside Harry described him "as one of the lads".

Chris Douglass, 28, from Sunderland, said: "I was commanding this vehicle when we first came and Prince Harry just jumped up and took control.

"It's not too bad, he gets cracking, gets the job done."

The dad-of-two added: "It has been good actually. It has been a lot easier than I thought, He's a very easy person to get along with, he's been great, he's just like one of the lads.

"He's just another officer at the end of the day. His background has got nothing to do with what his job is and that's what he's here to do."

Bolton soldier Steve Halliwell, 27 - nicknamed "Geri" after the Spice Girl - returned to Afghanistan from a two-week trip home and noticed a new colleague.

He said: "I came back from R&R and when I stepped out of the wagon he was standing there, it was a double-take moment.

"It will be something to tell the grandkids when I get older."

There were lighter moments for the prince when he found an abandoned motorbike in the desert while on patrol.

Harry dashed across to check it was safe before wheeling it across to his fellow soldiers to try to get it started.

He ripped an old cushion off the Honda 125, joking that it did not fit with his soldier look.

With trooper Qoriniasi Matai Loloma, from Suva, Fiji, giving him a push, the engine spluttered into life. And Harry raced through the thick dust shouting: "No brakes! No brakes!"

When Lance Corporal Halliwell had a go and the engine failed, Harry landed on his back in laughter.

A morning kickabout was a post-breakfast ritual for Arsenal fan Harry and his comrades. They gathered most mornings for an improvised game of football with a ball made of toilet roll wrapped in black tape.

But Harry was all business when it came to the serious stuff, happily bunkering down in a hole in the sand he dug himself.

It will be all change today as he returns to the UK frustrated at his early withdrawal.

However, Brigadier Andrew Mackay, the commander of the task force in Helmand, says Harry should enjoy being home.

He said: "Like every other returning soldier who has undergone or experienced intense operations, Harry will now need some time to reflect on his experience, remain close to his regiment, spend time with his family and friends and enjoy some well earned leave. We wish him well."

Brigadier Mackay added: "The decision to withdraw Harry from operations was one that was not made lightly and was given very careful consideration.

"Harry was deployed in the field, conducting operations against the Taliban and we therefore had to consider not just the consequences for him personally but those that he was serving alongside.

"I know that he has flourished in this most demanding of environments, relished the opportunity to serve his regiment and his country and is deservedly immensely proud of his contribution. He has acquitted himself with distinction."

CAPTION(S):

ENJOYING THE RIDE: Harry had his comrades laughing after finding an old Honda bike in the desert; DESERT LIFE: Harry enjoys a kickabout with makeshift ball and tries to get sand from his eye, right. Serious stuff as he mans machine gun, top right JOHN STILLWELL/PA
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Publication:Daily Record (Glasgow, Scotland)
Date:Mar 1, 2008
Words:1242
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