LONDON – Britain's defense chief decided Friday to pull Prince Harry out of Afghanistan after news of his deployment was leaked in the media.
Air Chief Marshal Jock Stirrup, the chief of the Defense Staff, made the decision to immediately withdraw the prince after senior commanders assessed the risks, the Defense Ministry said in a statement.
Harry, third in line to the British throne, has been serving on the front line with an army unit in Afghanistan's southern Helmand province since mid-December.
He was originally due to return to Britain within weeks, but "the situation has now clearly changed," the statement said.
The decision was based on concerns that worldwide media coverage of Harry in Afghanistan could put him and his comrades at increased risk.
The ministry asked the media not to speculate on Harry's location -- or how and when he would return -- until he was back in Britain.
The ministry deplored the leak by "elements of the foreign media."
"However, this was a circumstance that we have always been aware of and one for which we have had contingency plans in place," the statement said.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown said the prince had demonstrated that he was an exemplary young officer.
"The whole of Britain will be proud of the outstanding service he is giving," Brown said.
Harry, 23, is the first royal to serve in a combat zone since his uncle Prince Andrew flew helicopters during Britain's war with Argentina over the Falkland Islands in 1982.
British officials had hoped to keep Prince Harry's deployment secret until he had safely returned, but they released video of him serving in Helmand Province after a leak appeared on the U.S. Web site the Drudge Report.
Tours to Afghanistan usually last six months; Harry has served 10 weeks.
Harry conceded in an interview filmed last week that when he returns to Britain he could be a "top target" for Islamic terrorists.
"Once this ... comes out, every single person that supports them will be trying to slot me," he said.
The deployment plan had been disclosed to reporters, with no specific date, but was not reported previously because of an agreement between the Ministry of Defense and all major news organizations operating in Britain, including The Associated Press. The news blackout was intended to reduce the risk to the prince and his regiment.
Harry was supposed to go to Iraq with the Blues and Royals regiment in May last year but the assignment was canceled because of security fears. Iraqi insurgents made threats on Internet chat rooms, saying he would not make it home alive.
Harry trained at Sandhurst military academy and joined the Blues and Royals as a cornet, the cavalry regiment's equivalent of a second lieutenant. After being held back from his Iraq assignment, the prince threatened to quit the army if he was not given the chance to see combat.
He said the news of his Afghan assignment was delivered by his grandmother, Queen Elizabeth II.
Harry said his older brother, William, who also graduated from Sandhurst and is training as a military pilot, is jealous of his deployment. As Britain's presumptive future king, Prince William is unlikely ever to see combat.
Harry has been in Helmand Province, where most of the 7,800 British soldiers in Afghanistan are based. It has seen some of the country's fiercest combat in recent years, with NATO-led forces fighting the Taliban and al-Qaida militants.
Harry's work in Afghanistan has involved calling in airstrikes on Taliban positions as well as going out on foot patrols. He spent part of his deployment at a base 500 yards from Taliban positions, the military said.
Since Harry's arrival, his battle group has been responsible for around 30 enemy deaths, a Ministry of Defense official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information.
Video showed the prince in camouflage fatigues walking across arid and dusty terrain, calling in air support, firing a machine gun and patrolling the streets of Garmsir, the southernmost part of the province. He has since left Garmsir, but his current whereabouts is being kept secret.