LONDON – Prince Harry's assertion that he has killed Taliban fighters while deployed as a helicopter gunner in Afghanistan drew intense media coverage in Britain on Tuesday and sparked concerns about possible reprisals.
He made the assertion in a pooled interview first published Monday night after he was safely out of Afghanistan following a 20-week deployment in which he served as a co-pilot and gunner in a heavily armed Apache attack helicopter.
Asked if he had killed from the cockpit, the third-in-line for the British throne said that he and a lot of other people had done so while in combat.
The response was immediate: The Daily Mirror ran a page-one headline "Royal Sensation Harry: I Killed Taliban" on Tuesday along with a photo of a macho-looking Harry in combat gear and designer shades.
Other newspapers ran similar gung-ho stories about the prince's military exploits. "Harry: I Have Killed" was the story in the Daily Mail. Video shot during the prince's deployment was shown dozens of times on Britain's major news networks.
Not everyone was applauding the soldier-prince.
Lindsey German, leader of the Stop the War Coalition, called Harry's comments "arrogant and insensitive" and raised the prospect that Harry might have targeted Afghan civilians.
Former officer Charles Heyman, who edits a yearbook on British forces, said the prince's words may raise the already high threat level against Harry.
"The royal family are all targets, and he now probably becomes the prime target, royal family-wise," Heyman said.
"But he can live with that. He's a soldier, he knows what he's doing. By and large the world's elite make sure their sons and daughters go nowhere near the firing line. So it brings credit to the royal family, and it's good for army morale, that Harry's not sitting back in London saying, 'Well done boys.'"
Heyman said that as an Apache gunner, Harry would have opened fire when directed to do so by a ground controller who would most likely have been under enemy fire. Harry typically would have been firing at Taliban forces in bunkers or protected in some way, not troops out in the open, said the former officer.
"They would have been opening fire to relieve pressure on the ground, maybe even to rescue people on the ground," Heyman said. "If he was using machine guns, there is no way he could say categorically he destroyed the target, but if he was using the Hellfire missiles against a bunker, he would be able to say categorically that he destroyed the target."
If you see a large explosion, and if there is no more enemy fire from the area, the gunner can be "pretty sure" the enemy has been eliminated, Heyman said.
Col. Richard Kemp, a former British commander in Afghanistan, said the fevered press response to Harry's words reflects a certain naivety about the realities of war.
"He's flying an attack helicopter armed with missiles and machine guns, and its purpose is predominantly to come in and provide fire support for troops fighting the Taliban, so it would be very, very surprising if he didn't swoop in and kill," Kemp said. "I know it's a delicate subject, but I'm surprised by how much people have seized on what he said. If he'd been bragging about killing, that would have been wrong, but he didn't brag about it."