Inquiry after weapon fires in vehicle, injuring soldiers

By Andrew Koubaridis

A military investigation has begun into how a New Zealand soldier accidentally shot himself and a colleague while travelling through hostile terrain in Afghanistan.

New Zealand joint forces commander Major General Rhys Jones told the Herald the investigation would try to determine why the gun fired.

"We hope to have preliminary information within a week," General Jones said.

The gun could have malfunctioned or it could have been fired in error after the safety catch became dislodged.

General Jones said the incident happened at 9.30pm Sunday (NZ time) when the soldiers' armoured Humvee vehicle was returning from a routine patrol between Kabul and Bagram Air Force base.

The soldier was standing - acting as a lookout in the weapons hatch - when an unknown number of rounds ricocheted around the cabin.

General Jones told Radio New Zealand that the rifle was slung over his back with the rifle pointing down.

A bullet struck the soldier in the leg before hitting the other in the arm.

Neither injury is life-threatening but the pair have been flown to a German military hospital for surgery.

Army spokesman Dave Courtney said it is common practice for soldiers to carry their rifles slung over their shoulders with the barrel pointing downwards.

The location where the incident occurred is considered hostile with frequent ambushes and explosions.

The Humvee stopped for a short time while the soldiers were treated. They were then taken to Bagram Air Force base, about 10 minutes away, for initial treatment.

It is not known how long the soldiers will take to recover but they are not expected to return to New Zealand.

Both soldiers had spoken with their families in New Zealand.

The incident was unfortunate but such things happened from time to time, General Jones said.

"Unfortunately it's not an uncommon event."

Army training involved learning safety measures while working in rough terrain but accidents were a fact of life, he said.

The Steyr rifle has faced criticism in Australia where it is the standard issue rifle for troops.

Channel Seven reported in August that documents released by the military showed the weapon had faced "constant problems" including "locking... jamming... misfiring" because of "faulty springs".

The Australian Defence Force has rejected the claims and said Channel Seven's report was based on selective and exaggerated information.

The Austrian designed weapon has also been criticised by the managing editor of Asia Pacific Defence Reporter Kevan Wolfe in 2001.

The former Lieutenant Colonel told ABC that there had been 78 cases of the weapon misfiring during Australian troops serving in East Timor.

But Mr Wolfe said it was not a fault of the rifle but of training. He said Australian troops did not train often enough with live ammunition.

"I know of cases where army reserve soldiers haven't fired the thing in three years," Mr Wolfe said.

But Mr Courtney said New Zealand soldiers did train with live ammunition.

He said aside from general "wear and tear" there have been no "fundamental faults" with the rifle reported, Mr Courtney said.

"We don't have those issues with our weapons," he said.

The New Zealand Defence Force has 107 personnel with its provincial reconstruction team in Afghanistan.

The latest Kiwi contingent arrived this month and is due to stay six months.

The Kiwis are located in Bamyan Province and their role includes reconstruction projects, security patrols, training of Afghan National Police, explosive ordnance disposal and providing humanitarian aid and assistance.

After an earlier firearm incident involving New Zealand Defence Force personnel, Lieutenant Colonel David Pirie was fined $1700 for the unauthorised discharge of a weapon while on tour in Afghanistan in 2004.

He had fired a round during a dry drill, where no shots were permitted.

A New Zealand Army officer, Captain Jose Cooper, was found guilty of deliberately shooting a British Marine in Bosnia, after a drunken row in 2000. He was dismissed from the Army.

- additional reporting NZPA

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