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Byline: TOM NEWTON DUNN Defence Correspondent

SEEING the wreck of a 4x4 blasted by US troops reporter Ron Harris knew he was staring at a bloody bungle.

The initials "TV" were clearly marked on the still smoking vehicle. Turning to the tank crews he was travelling with, Ron yelled in panic "That's media in there!"

But troopers barred him and photographer Andy Cutraro from investigating even though the vehicle was only 200 yards away.

And not a single soldier moved to the scene - even from the protection of an Abrams tank.

Ron said: "It felt like protect the Marine Corps at all cost. But it was in the best interest of the corps to find out what happened. Nobody here can tell us anything, we understand bodies may still be in the vehicle, let's go see."

Andy, who looked at the wreck through a telephoto lens, said: "There was no question it was a TV crew. I said 'I think a TV crew was shot up. We gotta see what happened...can we get closer?' Somebody could have been injured and bled to death because no one wanted to make the move.

"I'm no expert but it seemed not a huge deal to move the tanks up to inspect the car, especially after you realised there were friendlies in there and journalists at that."

Unknown to the newsmen or marines it was too late. Three men already lay dead from US fire, say witnesses.

They included ITN cameraman Fred Nerac, 43, and translator Hussein Osman, 31, whose bodies have never been found.

When Americans Harris and Cutraro, who were "embedded" with the marines, arrived at the scene about an hour later there was nothing they or the US Army could do to save the men.

By dawn all trace of Nerac and Osman's car had disappeared. But the soldiers' apparent refusal to investigate when they did not know if the TV men were dead or alive will stoke anger over one of the most controversial incidents of the Iraqi war.

Belgian Nerac, Lebanese-born Osman, British reporter Terry Lloyd, 51, and French cameraman Daniel Demoustier were caught in US-Iraqi crossfire outside Basra exactly one year ago. Demoustier escaped by hiding in a ditch. Lloyd died from a US bullet fired while he was in the back of a makeshift Iraqi ambulance being driven to hospital away from the US positions.

For months Osman and Nerac were thought to have been handed over to fanatical fedayeen paramilitaries in nearby Az Zubayr because their looted vehicle and press passes were found there.

Now dramatic new evidence supplied by five Iraqi soldiers and civilians claims the two men died from heavy US fire as they were driven away from the battle on the back of an Iraqi pick-up truck.

The fleeing vehicle was hit almost immediately by heavy calibre rounds, believed to have been fired from Abrams tanks or Cobra and Apache helicopter gunships.

Witnesses say the attack was so intense the men were likely to have been blasted to bits.

Their remains are now probablyburied in unmarked mass graves along with dozens of Iraqi soldiers. The witnesses came forward after a fresh appeal by Royal Military Police investigating the tragedy. An army source said: "Our firm belief now is that Fred and Hussein never survived the initial fire fight. From all we gather, they were hit as the Iraqis tried to get them out." ITNcarried out its own painstaking investigation which came to the same conclusion. Its investigators, including two former SAS men, tracked down three Iraqis who were in the pick-up truck with Nerac and Osman. ITN journalist Nick Walshe, who led the internal probe, said: "There were inconsistencies. But the three people told broadly the same story, that Fred and Hussein had been put in a pick-up that was then shot to pieces by the Americans. "What happened to any bodies we still don't know a year on." The results of the ITN probe will be broadcast on ITV's Tonight with Trevor McDonald at 8pm tonight. Meanwhile the Mirror has learned the Army probe, ordered last summer by Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon, is set to wrap up in weeks without reaching a final conclusion Investigators have been repeatedly refused permission by the US military to interview the marines involved in the incident. Nerac's widow, mother of two Fabienne who lives in Brussels, has accused the Pentagon of obstruction. She said: "The marines have not been interviewed. It seems the British military are not allowed to. "Any answer from the US side could be quite important. "It's painful because 'missing' means both things, either Fred and Hussein are alive or they are dead. "I don't know after how many years I'll stop thinking of what happened to Fred. It could be always." ITN Editor David Mannion said: "This is a terrible thing for the families of Fred and Hussein to suffer. For there to be no body to bury or cremate prevents closure". The Army refused to comment. The Pentagon last night could not comment the new allegations.


FRED NERAC; Cameraman, 43, has not been found; HUSSEIN OSMAN; Translator, 31, is also still missing; BLASTED: Nerac and Osman's 4x4 with TV marking; KILLED: Terry; TEAM: Photographer Andy, left, and reporter Ron in Baghdad last April
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Copyright 2004 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Mar 22, 2004
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