Pictures of wounded men being shot censored by TV

The pictures are appalling, the words devastating. As a wounded Iraqi crawls from beneath a burning truck, an American helicopter pilot tells his commander that one of three men has survived his night air attack. “Someone wounded,” the pilot cries. Then he received the reply: “Hit him, hit the truck and him.” As the helicopter’s gun camera captures the scene on video, the pilot fires a 30mm gun at the wounded man, vaporising him in a second.

British and most European television stations censored the tape off the air last night on the grounds that the pictures were too terrible to show. But deliberately shooting a wounded man is a war crime under the Geneva Convention and this extraordinary film of US air crews in action over Iraq is likely to create yet another international outcry.

American and British personnel have been trying for weeks to persuade Western television stations to show video of the attack. Despite the efforts of reporters in Baghdad and New York, most television controllers preferred to hide the evidence from viewers. Only Canal Plus in France, ABC television in the United States and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation have so far had the courage to show the shocking footage. UK military personnel in the Gulf region have confirmed that the tape is genuine.

The camera, mounted beside the 30mm cannon of a US Apache helicopter on patrol over central Iraq on 1 December, first picks up movement on a country road, apparently several hundred metres from an American military checkpoint. A lorry and a smaller vehicle, probably a pick-up, come into view and a man – apparently unaware of the hovering helicopter – is seen moving to a field on the left of the screen. He is carrying what seems to be a tube with a covering; it may be a rocket-propelled grenade. One of the two helicopter pilots is heard to say: “Big truck over here. He’s having a little powwow”. The driver of the pick-up looks around, reaches into the vehicle, takes out the tube shaped object and runs from the road into the field. He drops the object and returns to the truck. The pilot then radios: “I got a guy running, throwing a weapon.” Another pilot, or a ground controller, instructs him: “Engage – smoke him”.

At this point, a tractor arrives close to where the man from the lorry dropped the object in the field. One of the Iraqis approaches the tractor driver. The Apache pilot opens fire with his 30mm cannon, killing first the Iraqi in the field and then the tractor driver. The camera registers the bullets hitting the first man. All that is left is a smudge on the ground.

The pilot then turns his attention to the large truck, opens fire and waits to see if he has hit the last of the three men. The third man is seen crawling, obviously badly wounded, from his cover beneath the blazing truck. The pilot reports: “Wait. Someone wounded by the truck”. An officer replies: “Hit him. Hit the truck and him”.

The video shows that the incident took four minutes, during which the two helicopter pilots – whose names are listed as Nager and Alioto – expended 300 high-velocity cannon rounds at their targets. The tape shows that the first 15 rounds missed the men. One of the pilots says: “F***, switching to range auto.” The tape then documents the firing of four bursts of 20 rounds each at the three men.

The pictures, apparently taken through thermal-imaging cameras, leave no doubt that the pilot knew his third victim was wounded and crawling along the ground – and that whoever gave him the order to hit him also knew this.

Coming only days after the appalling photographs of Iraqis being tortured and humiliated by US troops at Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad, the new pictures can only further inflame Arab opinion throughout the Middle East. It is common Israeli practice to kill wounded enemies from the air; a devastating helicopter assault by Israel on a Hizbollah training camp in Lebanon 10 years ago was accompanied by a series of attacks in which pilots sought out wounded guerrillas as they hid behind rocks in the Bekaa Valley and then fired at them.

The film, while it shows men acting in a suspicious manner, does not prove they were handling weapons. The occupation authorities in Baghdad chose to keep the incident secret when it occurred in December. Watching the video images, it is easy to understand why.

Correspondent for the Independent, Robert Fisk is resident in the Middle East and comments on events unfolding there