Sunday, January 14, 2007

BASRA, Iraq — Terrorists attacking British bases in Basra are using aerial footage displayed by the Google Earth Web site to pinpoint their attacks, British army intelligence sources say.

Documents seized during raids on the homes of insurgents last week uncovered printouts from photographs taken from the Web site.

The satellite photographs show in detail the buildings inside the bases and vulnerable areas such as tented accommodation, toilet blocks and where lightly armored Land Rovers are parked.

Written on the back of one set of photographs taken of the Shatt al Arab Hotel, headquarters for the 1,000 troops of the Staffordshire Regiment battle group, officers found the camp’s precise longitude and latitude.

“This is evidence as far as we are concerned for planning terrorist attacks,” said an intelligence officer with the Royal Green Jackets battle group. “Who would otherwise have Google Earth imagery of one of our bases?”

The officer, however, said the military has no proof that insurgents have deliberately targeted any area of the camp using the Google images.

One soldier has been killed in the past six months following a mortar attack, and there have been several injuries.

Since the maps were found, intelligence chiefs have been keeping track of where rounds land to see whether the insurgents are using them to pinpoint weakly protected areas.

The British camps experience mortar and rocket attacks on a daily basis. Salvos are fired from up to four miles away and are increasingly accurate.

Yesterday three rounds were fired into Basra Palace. No one was injured.

Intelligence sources also think the insurgents are receiving more training and weaponry from Iran to improve their fighting skills. But the British are gathering more intelligence on mortar crews and carrying out several “strike operations” to detain the operators.

Anyone with access to the Internet can sign up to Google Earth and by simply typing in the name of a location they can receive very detailed imagery down to identifying types of vehicles.

Google is one of several Internet outlets that buy aerial imagery, usually taken by aircraft but sometimes by satellite, from governments or mapping companies.

The age of the maps is not clear, but it is thought the Basra images were made within the past two years.

Maj. Charlie Burbridge, the British military spokesman in Iraq, said: “We take the security of our bases very seriously and we constantly review the means to provide secure accommodation for our soldiers.

“There is a constant threat of reconnaissance missions to access our bases and using these Internet images is just another method of how this is conducted.”

A Google spokesman said the information could be used for “good and bad” and was available to the public in many forms. “Of course, we are always ready to listen to governments’ requests,” he said.

“We have opened channels with the military in Iraq but we are not prepared to discuss what we have discussed with them. But we do listen and we are sensitive to requests.”

There have also been reports that the images are being sold to rogue militias in the marketplace in Basra.

The British security services are concerned that terrorists will be able to examine in detail sensitive infrastructure such as electricity stations, military bases and their own headquarters in London.

Soldiers from the Royal Green Jackets based at the Basra Palace base said they had considered suing Google Earth if they were injured by mortar rounds that had been directed on the camp by the aerial footage.

“Even if they did blank out the areas where we are based, it is a bit after the horse has bolted as the terrorists now have the maps and know exactly where we eat, sleep and go to the toilet,” one soldier said.

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