Army prepares to evacuate Harry after blackout fails

Army commanders were making frantic arrangements on Thursday night to bring Prince Harry back from Afghanistan after an American website disclosed that he had been serving with other British troops fighting the Taliban.

The prince, who is 10 weeks into a 14-week tour, was believed to still be in the country last night among British soldiers in the southern Helmand province.

The lid was blown on Harry’s deployment on Thursday afternoon by the Drudge Report, a United States political blog, ending a voluntary agreement by the British media to keep it secret until he had returned. His job in Afghanistan was to monitor Taliban fighters’ movements transmitted on to screens nicknamed ”Kill TV”.

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) had held a series of meetings with senior editors from all United Kingdom newspapers and broadcasters over the last three months where it had been agreed that Harry and his colleagues would have been put in greater danger had details of his presence been made public.

Commanders are now expected to activate their contingency plan to fly the prince out of Afghanistan as quickly as possible amid fears that the Taliban will step up attacks on British bases.

General Sir Richard Dannatt, the head of the army, whose decision ultimately it was to deploy the prince to Afghanistan said in a statement on Thursday night: ”In deciding to deploy him to Afghanistan, it was my judgement that, with an understanding with the media not to broadcast his whereabouts, the risk in doing so 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.”

The army cut out a special role for the prince — directing aircraft to enemy positions, rather like a military air traffic controller, in Garmser, south of Helmand province close to the Pakistan border. He was said by defence sources on Thursday night to be no longer there.

In a pre-prepared interview that was meant to be broadcast after his return, the prince acknowledged that his presence could be dangerous for other soldiers. ”I think there’s a lot of guys here who hopefully won’t be targeted, but as I say now that this film has been made and now … people will know I’m out here no doubt I’ll be a top target.”

The young officer of the Household Cavalry had threatened to leave the army after the debacle last year over his planned deployment to Iraq. The MoD had insisted that he would serve with his unit just like any other soldier, but then, in an embarrassing U-turn, announced that he would not be deployed after all because insurgents, possibly encouraged by the speculation, had threatened to target him and his colleagues.

The Defence Secretary, Des Browne, said one reason for the decision was the risk to soldiers serving alongside the prince.

While the voluntary media blackout held in the UK, the MoD always acknowledged that there was a danger it would leak out from a foreign media source.

The Drudge Report, which is read by millions worldwide, said it had picked up the story from the website of an Australian women’s magazine called New Idea, and the German daily Bild had also started to report rumours of Harry’s deployment as unconfirmed gossip.

On Thursday night, Tim Toulmin, director of the Press Complaints Commission, said the surprising thing was not that the embargo had been broken but that it had held for so long.

”A lot of people might be surprised that an old-fashioned gentlemen’s agreement can be so successful. People were taken into the confidence of the MoD and agreed to protect that information in return for good footage and access and so on. Everyone stood by it,” he said.

Harry flew out to Afghanistan on December 14 and had been due to complete a four-month tour without the standard two-week rest and recreation break other soldiers enjoy.

Operating out of a forward base in Helmand province, Cornet Wales, as he is known in the army, has been working as a forward air controller and is responsible for coordinating air support and aviation across the area, calling in fast jets to drop 227kg bombs on enemy positions.

He has been fighting what he calls ”Terry Taliban” and taking the opportunity to be ”normal” like other soldiers. – Guardian Newspapers Limited 2008

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