The killing of two journalists in a Baghdad hotel by a U.S. shell was the result of "criminal negligence" for which President George W. Bush's government is partly responsible, a leading media watchdog said on Thursday.
Reuters cameraman Taras Protsyuk and a Spanish television colleague, Jose Couso, were killed by the shell which was fired by a U.S. tank at the Palestine Hotel in the Iraqi capital on April 8, in the final stages of the U.S.-led war to topple Saddam Hussein.
The Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF) watchdog said in a special report that the firing of the shell was not a deliberate attack on the media but U.S. soldiers should have been told by their commanders that a large number of journalists was based in the hotel.
"The shooting at this building was therefore not deliberately aimed at journalists or the press in Baghdad, as some people have claimed. It was, however, an act of criminal negligence for which responsibility should clearly be established," the watchdog said in a covering statement with the report.
The report called for a reopening of a U.S. army inquiry which ruled last August that American forces acted "in an appropriate manner" when they fired into the hotel.
The report criticised U.S. authorities for maintaining ahead of the inquiry that the reason for the firing of the shell was legitimate self-defence in response to shooting from the hotel.
"This first version of events became the official version and was a lie by the authorities," RSF said.
The report said the key to the tragedy was that soldiers in the field were never told that a large number of journalists were in the Palestine Hotel nor was it marked on maps used by artillery support soldiers.
"If they had known, they would never have fired," RSF said.
The report said Captain Philip Wolford, who gave permission for the shell to be fired at the hotel, and Sergeant Shawn Gibson, who fired the shell, were not responsible for the deaths.
But heavy responsibility should be borne at a higher level, at the headquarters of General Buford Blount, commander of the 3rd Infantry Division, "for not providing the necessary information that would have prevented the death of the journalists", the report said.
RSF said since the U.S. government had "supreme authority over its army in the field", it must bear some responsibility for the shelling.
The tank shell hit a 15th floor balcony used by Reuters international news agency in the 17-story hotel.
Reuters Ukrainian cameraman Protsyuk was wounded and died on arrival at a Baghdad hospital. Debris damaged the floor below, where cameraman Couso of the Spanish television company Telecinco was fatally wounded. Three other Reuters staff were also seriously hurt.
A spokeswoman for Reuters said: "The main conclusions in this report are generally consistent with the finding of our own investigation which identified a breakdown in communications between military commanders and troops on the ground.
"Since this attack, the safety of journalists in Iraq has not improved and we are taking every possible step, including actively engaging with the U.S. military, to try and change this."
The U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists said last October it had filed requests for more details from the Pentagon on the Palestine Hotel deaths and the killing of another Reuters cameraman, Mazen Dana, by a U.S. soldier in Iraq on August 17.
Reuters also made a formal complaint this week to the U.S. military about the arrest and treatment of three of its staff held after a helicopter crash near the town of Fallujah.