U.S. Soldier Acquitted in Two S.Korea Deaths

SEOUL (Reuters) - A U.S. military court acquitted an American tank navigator Wednesday of negligent homicide in an accident that killed two South Korean girls and sparked months of angry demonstrations.

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The accident, in which two 13-year-old students were crushed by an armored vehicle in a village north of Seoul, prompted a series of apologies from U.S. commanders and protests by South Koreans demanding the soldiers be tried in local courts.

South Korean political groups and North Korea (news - web sites) seized upon the incident to press longstanding demands for a withdrawal of the 37,000 U.S. troops based in the South to deter invasion by the communist North.

A bilateral treaty gives the U.S. military jurisdiction in cases involving soldiers on duty.

The court-martial acquittal of Sergeant Fernando Nino on Wednesday would be followed by the trial of Sergeant Mark Walker, both serving in the 2nd Infantry division of the 8th U.S. Army.

Walker was the driver and Nino the track commander of the tank-like minesweeping vehicle, which ran over the girls on June 13 on a road some 30 km (18 miles) south of South Korea (news - web sites)'s heavily fortified border with the North. "After considering all of the evidence, the members of the court-martial determined that the girls' deaths were accidental and not due to any criminal misconduct on the part of Sgt. Nino," Lt. Gen. Charles Campbell of the U.S. Army's public affairs office said in a statement.

"We once again apologize for the grief and sorrow we've caused the (victims') families," he added.

Campbell said the army base has changed safety procedures since the incident, and taken administrative action against members of Nino's chain of command.

Pollution, noise and traffic from the U.S. bases and occasional crimes by American troops have been a source of friction with communities living near U.S. facilities in the densely-populated area around the capital Seoul.

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