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American Soldier Acquitted in Deaths of 2 South Korean Schoolgirls - 2002-11-23

A U.S. military court has acquitted a second American soldier of criminal misconduct in the deaths of two South Korean schoolgirls who were crushed to death by a military vehicle. The decision follows an earlier acquittal of the soldier who acting as navigator at the time of the accident. The two rulings have sparked a furious reaction in South Korea, and warnings to Americans in the country to be wary of retaliation.

There were angry protests in South Korea after a court martial cleared Sgt. Mark Walker late Friday evening of negligent homicide in the deaths of two 14-year-old schoolgirls. Sergeant Walker was driving the 50-ton military vehicle that crushed Shim Mi-Son and Shin Hyon-Sun to death on June 13, as they walking to a friend's birthday party.

During the trial in the American military base Camp Casey, just north of Seoul, the prosecutor argued that if Sgt. Walker had driven reasonably, the two girls would still be alive today. In response, the defense lawyer said Mr. Walker was the least to blame for the accident, because he could not see to the right side of the vehicle, where the girls were walking.

Responsibility for ensuring that the right-hand side of this type of vehicle is clear lies with the navigator, who has to communicate with the driver through a helmet microphone because of the loud engine noise.

Two days earlier, the vehicle's navigator, Sgt. Fernando Nino, had been cleared of the same charges of negligent homicide. Much of the argument during his court martial focused on the communications system, and whether it was working at the time of the accident.

Following the second trial, an American officer said the two verdicts indicated that the deaths were what he called "a tragic accident without criminal culpability."

But the verdicts have been bitterly rejected in South Korea. During the trial, demonstrators outside the camp threw eggs and paint, and were involved in violent exchanges with riot police. Several activists cut their fingers to write anti-U-S slogans in blood on South Korean flags. The demonstrators were demanding that the two soldiers be handed over to a South Korean court.

South Korea's political parties have been unanimous in their condemnation of the verdicts, and there have been new calls for revision of the agreement under which the U-S military has jurisdiction over American personnel charged with crimes while on duty in South Korea.

According to the terms of that agreement, the U.S. army can decide on a case-by-case basis whether to hand accused soldiers over to the South Korean authorities. Up to now, it has never done so.

The angry reaction prompted the U.S. embassy in Seoul to warn Americans in the country about their safety. Two separate notices issued by the embassy urged Americans to exercise caution and avoid large crowds and demonstrations, and warned that students or dissidents might attempt to do violence, or even "terrorism," to American soldiers and civilians.