WASHINGTON — In what appeared to be the first case of U.S. troops being hit by "friendly fire" from a drone aircraft, two were killed by a Hellfire missile after apparently being mistaken for insurgents moving to attack a group of Marines in southern Afghanistan, the Tribune Washington Bureau reported Monday, citing two unnamed Pentagon officials.
A Predator drone fired the missile that killed a Marine and a Navy medic in Helmand province on Wednesday, they said.
Drones have been involved in airstrikes that accidentally killed Afghan and Pakistani civilians since the United States began using them in the region a decade ago, becoming a flash point for anti-American sentiment. But until now, no U.S. troops have been reported killed in an error.
Dozens of Predators and more heavily armed Reaper drones fly every day over Afghanistan, operated remotely by pilots at air bases in the United States. Cameras aboard the drones also provide live video feeds to ground combat units, which have come to rely on the drones for surveillance as well as for air cover.
The missile strike occurred about 9:30 a.m. Wednesday near the crossroads town of Sangin. Marine Staff Sgt. Jeremy D. Smith of Arlington, Texas, and Seaman Benjamin D. Rast of Niles, Mich., were hit as they moved on foot in a group trying to reach other Marines pinned down by insurgent gunfire.
One Pentagon official said the Marines called in the airstrike when they saw images on the video feed of unknown men heading toward them. It wasn't clear why the rescue team headed their way was not clearly identified.