Medic stuns courtroom saying he killed prisoner, not Navy SEAL on trial

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Navy SEAL Special Operations Chief Edward Gallagher leaves court after the first day of jury selection at the court-martial trial at Naval Base San Diego in San Diego, California , U.S., June 17, 2019. REUTERS/Mike Blake

By Marty Graham

SAN DIEGO (Reuters) – A Navy SEAL medic testified on Thursday that he was responsible for the death of an Islamic State fighter – not the Navy SEAL defendant undergoing a court-martial for war crimes – describing it as a mercy killing.

Special Operator 1st Class Corey Scott, a SEAL team medic, said under cross-examination by the defense in a courtroom at the San Diego Naval Base that he killed the fighter by asphyxiation after he saw Special Operations Chief Edward Gallagher stab the victim with a knife.

Scott said he held his thumb over a breathing tube that had been inserted into the mouth of a fighter, who had a leg wound and collapsed lung following house-to-house fighting in the Iraqi city of Mosul in 2017.

The fighter had been captured by Iraqi forces and dumped on the ground at a base outside Mosul, the prosecution said in its opening statement on Monday.

Prosecutors say Gallagher, 39, who began his 18-year career as a medic, briefly treated the young Islamic State fighter, then pulled out his knife and stabbed him in the neck several times.

Scott, who was called to the stand by the defense, said the fighter was breathing normally after he and Gallagher treated him for wounds suffered in an air strike, but then saw Gallagher stab the young militant once with his knife.

Scott said the fighter survived the stabbing. But Scott said he blocked the young man’s air tube thinking he would eventually be tortured to death by Iraqi forces.

Scott’s testimony under immunity from prosecution appeared to take the prosecutors by surprise and stunned the courtroom, witnesses said.

The judge denied an immediate defense motion to dismiss the case.

MURDER OR MUTINY?

The seven-sailor jury at the court-martial must decide whether the fighter’s death was murder as alleged by the prosecution or a mutiny by sailors under Gallagher’s command in Iraq, as the defense contends.

Gallagher could face life in prison if convicted in the trial arising from his 2017 deployment to Mosul, Iraq.

Defense attorney Tim Parlatore said the surprising admission from Scott that he had asphyxiated the wounded fighter showed that the prosecution never asked about the cause of death and the Navy Criminal Investigation service had gone into the case with minds made up.

“From the moment NCIS got involved, they ignored everything that didn’t fit their case,” Parlatore said. “What we learned today is Chief Gallagher is not guilty of murder.”

Gallagher’ wife, Andrea, told reporters after Thursday’s court session ended: “We’ve been patiently waiting for the truth to come out. It’s been lies, half-truths and cover ups till now.”

Prosecutors were not available for comment.

Gallagher is also charged with attempted murder in the wounding of two civilians – a schoolgirl and an elderly man – shot from a sniper’s perch in Iraq.

He maintains fellow SEAL team members in his platoon, who turned him in and are testifying against him under grants of immunity, are disgruntled subordinates who fabricated allegations to force him from command.

The court-martial has drawn national attention – including that of President Donald Trump who said last month that he is considering pardons for a number of military service members accused of war crimes, and Gallagher’s case was believed to be one of those under review.

Gallagher, a career Navy officer, was on his eighth deployment, this time to Iraq where SEALs were training Iraqi military as they pushed Islamic State fighters out of Mosul in a fight that went block by block through the war-ravaged city.

Iraqi forces came across the Islamic State fighter after he had been shot in the leg and was struggling to breathe during the fighting in Mosul. They tied him to the hood of a Humvee before driving two hours to their operating base, where he was placed on the ground and died 20 minutes later.

(Reporting by Marty Graham; writing by Bill Tarrant; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

‘Miracle or science?’: Thai soccer team saved from flooded cave

An ambulance leaves from Tham Luang cave complex in the northern province of Chiang Rai, July 9, 2018. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

By John Geddie and Panu Wongcha-um

CHIANG RAI, Thailand (Reuters) – Rescuers freed the last four of 12 Thai boys and their soccer coach from deep inside a flooded cave on Tuesday, a successful end to an extraordinarily perilous mission that gripped the world for more than two weeks.

A stretcher which is believed to be carrying a boy rescued from the Tham Luang cave is moved from an ambulance in the northern province of Chiang Rai, Thailand, in this photo taken by Kyodo July 9, 2018. Picture taken July 9, 2018. Mandatory credit Kyodo/via REUTERS

A stretcher which is believed to be carrying a boy rescued from the Tham Luang cave is moved from an ambulance in the northern province of Chiang Rai, Thailand, in this photo taken by Kyodo July 9, 2018. Picture taken July 9, 2018. Mandatory credit Kyodo/via REUTERS

The “Wild Boars” soccer team, aged between 11 and 16, and their 25-year-old coach became trapped on June 23 while exploring the cave complex in the northern province of Chiang Rai when a rainy season downpour flooded the tunnels.

“We are not sure if this is a miracle, a science, or what. All the thirteen Wild Boars are now out of the cave,” the Navy SEAL unit, which led the rescue, said on its Facebook page, adding all were safe.

British divers found the 13, hungry and huddled in darkness on a muddy bank in a partly flooded chamber several kilometers inside the Tham Luang cave complex, on Monday last week.

After pondering for days how to get the 13 out, a rescue operation was launched on Sunday when four of the boys were brought out, tethered to rescue divers.

Another four were rescued on Monday and the last four boys and the coach were brought out on Tuesday, prompting rounds of spontaneous applause as ambulances and helicopters passed.

Volunteers celebrate near Tham Luang cave complex, July 10, 2018. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

Volunteers celebrate near Tham Luang cave complex, July 10, 2018. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

Celebrations were tinged with sadness over the loss of a former Thai navy diver who died on Friday while on a re-supply mission inside the cave.

“I want to tell the coach thank you so much for helping the boys survive this long,” said one Chiang Rai woman wearing a traditional dress, tears brimming in her eyes.

“I remember all of their faces, especially the youngest one. He’s the smallest one and he doesn’t have as much experience as the others… I felt like he was one of my own children and I wanted him to come home.”

The last five were brought out of the cave on stretchers, one by one over the course of Tuesday, and taken by helicopter to hospital.

Three members of the SEAL unit and an army doctor, who has stayed with the boys since they were found, were the last people due to come out of the cave, the unit said.

Officials did not comment on the rescue mission as it took place, so details of the final day of the rescue and the condition of the last five to be brought out were not immediately known.

Rescued schoolboys are moved from a military helicopter to an awaiting ambulance at a military airport in Chiang Rai, Thailand, July 9, 2018. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

Rescued schoolboys are moved from a military helicopter to an awaiting ambulance at a military airport in Chiang Rai, Thailand, July 9, 2018. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

The eight boys brought out on Sunday and Monday were in good health overall and some asked for chocolate bread for breakfast, officials said earlier.

Two of the boys had suspected lung infections but the four boys from the first group rescued were all walking around in hospital.

Volunteers from as far away as Australia and the United States helped with the effort to rescue the boys. U.S. military personnel also helped.

U.S. President Donald Trump hailed the rescue.

“On behalf of the United States, congratulations to the Thai Navy SEALs and all on the successful rescue of the 12 boys and their coach from the treacherous cave in Thailand,” Trump said on Twitter.

“Such a beautiful moment – all freed, great job!”

Authorities did not reveal the identity of the boys as they were brought out, one by one. Parents of the four boys rescued on Sunday were allowed to see them through a glass window at the hospital, public health officials said on Tuesday, but they will be quarantined for the time being.

The boys were still being quarantined from their parents because of the risk of infection and would likely be kept in hospital for a week for tests, officials said earlier.

(For an interactive graphic “Hope for the 13 trapped in Thai cave”, click https://tmsnrt.rs/2KR2zRj)

(Reporting by Panu Wongcha-um, Juarawee Kittisilpa, Patpicha Tanakasempipat, John Geddie and James Pomfret in CHIANG RAI, and Aukkarapon Niyomyat, Panarat Thepgumpanat, Amy Sawitta Lefevre and Chayut Setboonsarng in BANGKOK; Writing by James Pomfret; Editing by Robert Birsel and Nick Macfie)

Thai diver dies as rescue teams ponder how to bring out trapped boys

Rescuers carry supplies into the Tham Luang cave complex, where 12 boys and their soccer coach are trapped, in the northern province of Chiang Rai, Thailand, July 5, 2018. Video taken July 5, 2018. Mandatory credit RUAMKATANYU FOUNDATION/Handout via Reuters TV

By Panu Wongcha-um and John Geddie

CHIANG RAI, Thailand (Reuters) – A former Thai navy diver died working to save 12 boys and their soccer coach trapped inside a flooded cave, highlighting the risks for rescue teams trying to find a safe way to bring the group out after 13 days underground.

Dwindling oxygen levels in the cave complex and weather forecasts predicting more heavy rain added to the pressure on authorities to work out a rescue plan.

Members of the media attend a news conference about the death of a Thai rescue diver after he fell unconscious during part of an operation, in front of the Tham Luang cave complex, where 12 boys and their soccer coach are trapped, in the northern province of Chiang Rai, Thailand, July 6, 2018. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

Members of the media attend a news conference about the death of a Thai rescue diver after he fell unconscious during part of an operation, in front of the Tham Luang cave complex, where 12 boys and their soccer coach are trapped, in the northern province of Chiang Rai, Thailand, July 6, 2018. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

Samarn Poonan, 38, a former member of Thailand’s elite navy SEAL unit, died on Thursday night as he worked underwater in the cave complex, laying oxygen tanks along a potential exit route, the SEAL commander said.

“We won’t let his life be in vain. We will carry on,” Admiral Arpakorn Yuukongkaew told reporters on Friday.

Samarn was working with a partner placing oxygen tanks in a section of the cave. As they returned, Samarn fell unconscious about 1.5 kms from the cave entrance.

“Once his mission was over he dove back, but in the middle of their return his buddy found Samarn unconscious in the water and tried to pump his heart, but he could not save his life,” the SEAL unit said in a statement.

The diver’s death also highlighted the risks for the boys, who have no scuba diving experience, if authorities decide they should attempt to swim out of the flooded cave.

“A navy SEAL just passed away last night. How about a 12-year-old boy that will have to pass through?” said Rafael Aroush, an Israeli living in Thailand and volunteer at the site.

“There will be rain and many things could go wrong. I don’t want to say it, but it could be a catastrophe,” he said.

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha expressed his condolences over Samarn’s death but it would not deter the rescue teams, a spokesman said.

“Authorities have not lost courage because of this,” Thassada Thangkachan told reporters in Bangkok.

Officials warned on Friday that oxygen levels inside the cave have fallen and rescuers were racing to get more oxygen pipes into the cave. They have been working on a five km (three miles) “oxygen pipeline” to prepare for the group’s extraction.

Rescuers, including international teams, are pondering other ways to bring the group out before heavy rains hit the country’s north next week which could further hamper the rescue operation.

In a rare piece of good news, rescuers on Friday cleared enough water from inside the cave to be able to wade to one of the cave’s chambers located about 1.7 kms from the boys’ location without diving.

DEEP WATER

Rescue alternatives include teaching the boys to dive and then swim out, a highly risky venture, remaining in the cave for months until the wet season ends and flood waters recede, or drilling a shaft into the cave from the forest above.

The boys, aged between 11 and 16, and their assistant coach were found inside the Tham Luang cave in northern Chiang Rai province on Monday, after nine days underground. They went missing after setting out to explore the cave on June 23.

Rescuers have been slowed by logistical issues including high water levels inside the cave and narrow, flooded passages which would require the boys to dive alone.

The navy is teaching the boys the basics of diving, with a view to guiding them out through flood waters.

But getting them out won’t be easy.

The boys will have to be taught how to use scuba diving gear and how to navigate a cave that has frustrated even the most expert divers. Some of the boys cannot swim.

“Regarding the plan for the 13 to swim or dive, there is only one critical point which is risky: It is where every boy has to dive alone,” Chiang Rai Governor Narongsak Osottanakorn said on Thursday.

Rescuers are considering other options including keeping the 13 inside the cave until the flood waters recede at the end of the rainy season in about four months.

If the weather is on their side and enough water can be pumped out of the cave, the boys could get out the same way they got in, on foot, perhaps with some swimming.

Another option would be to find an alternative way into their chamber, such as drilling a shaft into the cave from the forested mountain above.

(Additional reporting by John Geddie and Patpicha Tanakasempipat in CHIANG RAI, Amy Sawitta Lefevre, Pracha Hariraksapitak and Panarat Thepgumpanat in BANGKOK; Writing by Amy Sawitta Lefevre; Editing by Michael Perry and Darren Schuettler)

Junior soccer team found alive in Thai cave after nine days

By Panu Wongcha-um

CHIANG RAI, Thailand (Reuters) – Twelve boys and their assistant soccer coach have been found alive by rescuers inside a Thai cave complex nine days after they went missing, Chiang Rai province’s governor said on Monday.

The boys, aged between 11 and 16, went missing with the 25-year-old after soccer practice on June 23 after they set out to explore the Tham Luang cave complex in a forest park near by the border with Myanmar.

A massive international rescue effort has been under way since, with rescue teams battling through thick mud and high water to try to reach the group in the cave network that stretches 10 km (6 miles) into a mountain.

“Thai Navy seals have found all 13 with signs of life,” Governor Narongsak Osottanakorn told reporters who have been following the increasingly desperate search that has gripped the country.

Relatives of the boys, who have been at a shelter near the cave hoping for a breakthrough, were seen cheering, smiling and receiving calls after being given the news. Rescuers shook hands and congratulated each other as occasional cheers broke out.

It remains unclear whether any of the group are injured or in need of medical attention, but they have been given energy gels to sustain them while a plan is worked out to bring them to safety.

As the days wore on with the group missing, distraught family members had placed fruit, desserts, sugary drinks and sweets on mats near the cave as an offering to the spirits which some people believe protect the cave and the forest.

Rescuers had been working on Monday to clear a constricted passageway for divers deep inside the flooded complex in a search operation that has been hampered by heavy rain.

MEDICAL TEAMS

Divers from Thailand’s elite navy SEAL unit had been focusing on an elevated mound inside the cave which cavers have named “Pattaya Beach”, which could have provided the boys with a refuge when rains flooded the cave.

“The SEALs reported that … they reached Pattaya Beach which was flooded. So they went 400 meters further where we found the 13 … who were safe,” Narongsak told the cheering group of reporters.

Captain Jessica Tait from the U.S. Air Force’s rescue support team said there were “lots of challenges” throughout the search but that the effort had brought the country together.

“When you consider it there were lots of challenges when it comes to the elements, when it comes to the elements, when it comes to different courses of actions,” Tait told reporters.

“But you know what I saw, I saw Thailand coming together,” she added.

The next challenge will be getting the group out of the cave, which some have dubbed a “labyrinth”.

Rescuers had discussed waiting until water levels subsided to get the boys out. Other options included teaching the group to use diving gear to navigate the flooded cave.

Medical teams were seen preparing first aid kits after news of the group’s discovery broke outside the cave’s entrance.

Narongsak said medical teams had been sent inside the cave and it would take them around four hours to assess the group’s health and how fit they are before coming up with a strategy to get them out.

The boys have been provided with energy gel to eat, the Thai navy SEAL unit said on its official Facebook page.

“Power gel and sustenance equipment has been brought … to the team … and we’ve sent people to keep them company until the transport plan can begin,” it said.

(Reporting by Panu Wongcha-um and Chayut Setboonsarng; Additional reporting by Amy Sawitta Lefevre and Panarat Thepgumpanat; Writing by Amy Sawitta Lefevre; Editing by Andrew Roche and Alison Williams)

‘No Boots on the Ground’ has its limits as U.S. Navy Seal killed in Iraq

U.S. Navy Warfare Operator 1st Class Charles Keating IV, 31, of San Diego. U.S. Navy via Reuters

By Isabel Coles

TEL ASQOF, Iraq (Reuters) – A pickup truck races toward a burning village in northern Iraq, slamming to a halt behind an armored convoy that forms the only barrier between U.S. forces and Islamic State.

“We are fighting alongside our American brothers,” says the Kurdish fighter filming the scene, shouting to be heard over the sound of gunfire and explosions on the outskirts of Tel Asqof.

The clip, purportedly filmed on Tuesday during a fierce battle in which a U.S. Navy SEAL was killed, records the United States’ deepening involvement in the nearly two-year-old war against the jihadist militants.

Loath to become mired in another conflict overseas, the White House has insisted there will be no American “boots on the ground” in Iraq, instead deploying hundreds of troops to “advise and assist” local forces.

But footage of the firefight shown to Reuters by the Kurdish forces who filmed it, along with the accounts of others who took part, show how easily that distinction can blur.

The exact circumstances of Petty Officer First Class Charles Keating’s death remain unclear. Kurdish officials say he was hit by a sniper and evacuated by helicopter within the hour, but died of his wounds.

He is the third U.S. serviceman killed in direct combat with Islamic State since a U.S.-led coalition launched a campaign in 2014 to “degrade and destroy” the insurgent group.

U.S. forces then withdrew, according to Kurdish fighters involved in the battle, leaving an armored Toyota Landcruiser by the side of the road, its tyros flat.

SIGNS OF BATTLE

The armor was not penetrated, but the outer shell of the vehicle bears the marks of an intense firefight: a hole punched through the door by a rocket-propelled grenade and shattered glass where bullets hit the windshield.

Spent casings were still strewn around the car on Wednesday when Reuters visited the village, 28 km (17 miles) north of Mosul. In the nearby grass lay an empty packet of bandages “for treatment of moderate hemhorrage”.

A U.S. military spokesman said Keating was part of a “quick reaction force” called in after American advisers got caught up in the firefight.

Kurdish fighters said a small team of five or six U.S. advisers had been stationed in Tel Asqof, often visiting the front line around 3.5 km (2.2 miles) away and assisting with reconnaissance and air strike coordination.

“It is the first time they fight with us on the ground,” said Wahid Kovali, the head of the force that battled alongside the Americans. “They were heroic.”

It was Islamic State’s largest attack in months against Kurdish peshmerga forces, who are considered the coalition’s most trusted and effective ally in Iraq and have cleared large areas in the north with the help of air strikes.

Close coordination with the coalition means Islamic State is rarely able to breach peshmerga defenses, which stretch several hundred kilometers in an arc around the north and east of Mosul – by far the largest city in the militants’ self-proclaimed caliphate.

Early on Tuesday, however, the militants advanced from the village of Batnaya and blasted through the peshmerga positions, bringing a portable metal bridge to cross a defensive trench.

PICKUPS AND HUMVEES

From there they traversed open fields to Tel Asqof in a convoy including pickup trucks mounted with anti-aircraft guns, a bulldozer reinforced with metal plates and at least two Humvees, the charred remains of which could be seen inside the village.

“Daesh (Islamic State) came from here,” said a fighter named Adel, pointing down a street where flies converged on the splayed corpses of three militants.

Spreading out through Tel Asqof, the insurgents took up positions in houses, firing at the Americans on the outskirts of the village.

Craters in the asphalt mark where suicide bombers, some driving cars, blew themselves up as Kurdish forces closed in, eventually routing the militants.

Kurdish forces went house-to-house on Wednesday looking for any hold-outs and recovering their weapons and ammunition.

Back at a base, they laid out their haul, including machine guns, two explosive belts, four rocket-propelled grenades and several Kalashnikovs. There was also a small rucksack containing an unused roll of bandage and some dried figs.

One Kurdish fighter wore a digital watch taken from the wrist of a dead militant. “It’s a souvenir,” he said.

Saad, a peshmerga lieutenant who was wounded in the foot and still had a drip in the back of his hand, showed off an automatic rifle on which the previous owner had inscribed the name “Abu Khattab”. Stamped on the metal near the trigger was “Property of the U.S. government”.

At a press briefing on April 25, U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby said the administration’s promises that there would be “no boots on the ground” in Iraq did not mean U.S. soldiers would never be involved in combat, only that there would be no “large-scale conventional ground combat operations”.

(Editing by Kevin Liffey)

U.S. says it, allies to do more to combat Islamic State

A F/A-18E/F Super Hornets of Strike Fighter Attack Squadron 211 (VFA-211) lands on the flight deck of the USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71) aircraft carrier

By Phil Stewart

STUTTGART, Germany (Reuters) – U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said on Wednesday that Washington and its allies had agreed to do more in their campaign to defeat Islamic State, but that more risks lay ahead.

He made the comment following talks in Germany with defense ministers and representatives from 11 other nations participating in the alliance.

He said the United States greatly regretted the death of a Navy SEAL in an attack by the jihadist group in northern Iraq on Tuesday. He named the man as Petty Officer First Class Charles Keating.

“These risks will continue… but allowing ISIL safe haven would carry greater risk for us all,” he added, using an acronym for Islamic State.

“…We also agreed that all of our friends and allies across the counter-ISIL coalition can and must do more as well, both to confront ISIL in Iraq and Syria and its metastases elsewhere.”

The talks included ministers from France, Britain and Germany and were planned well in advance of Tuesday’s attack, in which Islamic State fighters blasted through Kurdish defenses and overran a town.

The elite serviceman was the third American to be killed in direct combat since the U.S.-led coalition launched a campaign in 2014 to “degrade and destroy” Islamic State, and is a measure of its deepening involvement in the conflict.

Offering new details about Keating’s mission, Carter said the SEAL’s job was to operate with Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga forces to train and assist them north of the city of Mosul.

“That part of the peshmerga front came under attack… and they found themselves in a firefight,” Carter said.

In mid-April the United States announced plans to send an additional 200 troops to Iraq and put them closer to the front lines of battle to advise Iraqi forces.

In late April, President Barack Obama announced he would send an additional 250 special operations forces to Syria, greatly expanding the U.S. presence on the ground there to help draw in more Syrian fighters to combat Islamic State.

Carter said the risks extended to pilots flying a U.S.-led campaign of daily air strikes. “Every time a pilot goes up in an airplane above Syria or Iraq they’re at risk,” he said.

The Islamist militants have been broadly retreating since December, when the Iraqi army recaptured Ramadi, the largest city in the western region. Last month, the Iraqi army retook the nearby region of Hit, pushing the militants further north along the Euphrates valley.

But U.S. officials acknowledge that the military gains are not enough.

Iraq is beset by political infighting, corruption, a growing fiscal crisis and the Shi’ite Muslim-led government’s fitful efforts to seek reconciliation with aggrieved minority Sunnis, the bedrock of Islamic State support.

(Reporting by Phil Stewart; editing by Ralph Boulton and John Stonestreet)