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Fighter's fatal flight path was a surprise

KUWAIT — Observers of an allied military exercise that went fatally awry in the Kuwaiti desert had applauded after two U.S. Navy planes hit their targets but could see that something was wrong with the third plane's route, a witness was quoted as saying.

"The first U.S. plane bombed its target successfully and servicemen were applauding. The same happened with the second plane, but we noticed that the third was flying in a direction that surprised us," Sgt. Fahd al-Laska was quoted as saying in the Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Rai Al-Aaam on Wednesday.

"We discussed it (and then) dust rose and we couldn't see a thing," al-Laska said.

An F/A-18 Hornet fighter had accidentally dropped at least two 500-pound bombs on observers at the Udairi bombing range, killing five U.S. military personnel and a New Zealander on Monday.

A Kuwaiti military official confirmed that al-Laska was at the bombing range at the time of the accident but said it may have been too dark for witnesses to see exactly what had happened. U.S. officials could not be reached Thursday for comment.

Al-Laska was reported as saying that the bombs' brunt was borne by six military vehicles, protecting him and other Kuwaiti soldiers who were only 30 feet away from the U.S. observers.

Planes from the USS Harry Truman carrier were practicing "close air support" for ground troops. Defense officials in Washington say the pilot had received the go-ahead from a U.S. ground controller, who moments later called out "abort, abort" in an attempt to halt the strike. An investigation is under way.

The United States has often conducted such exercises in Kuwait since the 1991 Gulf War, when a U.S.-led coalition expelled the Iraqi army from the oil-rich emirate.

Meanwhile, the bodies of the five American servicemen and a New Zealand military officer killed in the accident arrived at Germany's Ramstein Air Base early Thursday.

Military honors were given as the coffins arrived in the rain at the base. The bodies were taken to the nearby Landstuhl Medical Center for autopsy and formal identification.

Also Thursday, Iraq's ruling Baath Party newspaper al-Thawra said in a front page editorial that the U.S. warplane raided a "friendly" target on its way to bomb Iraq.

"The plane was meant to carry out an aggressive mission against Iraq but God wanted the pilot and his mission to fail," the paper said.