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Missile accident sparks political furor

HEILBRONN, West Germany -- U.S. Army experts Saturday began their investigation of how the motor of an unarmed Pershing 2 missile ignited, killing three American soldiers and sparking a new political furor over the rocket deployment.

Two groups of American investigators -- a 15-person team from the army's U.S.-based Missile Command and another from the U.S. Army Safety Center at Fort Rucker, Ala. -- arrived in Germany to study Friday's accident. U.S. authorities based in West Germany began a separate inquiry.

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'Investigations into the cause of the accident are under way,' said an army statement Saturday.

Three U.S. soldiers were killed and 16 others injured -- three critically -- when the solid fuel in the first-stage motor of a two-stage Pershing 2 missile ignited at the Waldheide U.S. missile training ground, near Heilbronn, 50 miles north of Stuttgart, army officials said.

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The 33-foot rocket was one of at least 54 Pershing 2 missiles deployed during the past 13 months in West Germany as part of a NATO plan to counter Soviet SS-20s targeted on Western Europe.

Army spokesmen stressed the missile was unarmed at the time of the accident, which officials said occurred during a 'routine operation' in a tent at the training ground. Warheads are believed to be stored separately from the rockets.

Details of the accident were sketchy. An army spokesman said Saturday the missile was new and had just been unpacked from a crate when the accident occurred.

The solid fuel somehow ignited and began to burn as if the missile had been fired, the spokesman said. The missile, however, remained stationary 'because it was not in a firing configuration' and was clamped to its launcher-transporter, he said.

The spokesman would not comment on reports the missile was dropped as it was being lifted out of its crate by a crane and had caught fire.

Two soldiers were burned to death almost immediately -- apparently by exhaust flames -- and one more died en route to a hospital. The dead soldiers were identified as Sgt. Todd A. Zephier of Wagner, S.D.; Staff Sgt. John E. Leach, Salem, Mo., and Pvt. Darryl L. Shirley, Irving, Texas.

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Nine of the 16 men injured remained hospitalized Saturday, an army spokesman said.

The accident occurred less than a week after the United States and the Soviet Union agreed to hold new talks on limiting nuclear and space weapons and as U.S. officials traveled toEuropean capitals to press for NATO unity before the negotiations.

Paul Nitze, special American adviser for the negotiations, was in Bonn late last week to discuss the upcoming negotiations.

In Moscow, the official Soviet news agency Tass said the accident 'has sent tremors down the backs of officials in the U.S. Department of Defense.' Tass quoted specialists who warned that such an accident 'could become the cause of outbreak of a nuclear war.'

The accident also sparked a new debate in Bonn over the missile deployment and seemed certain to embarrass Chancellor Helmut Kohl's Christian Democrat-led coalition government, which has been criticized by the German peace movement for accepting the missiles.

'The Pershing 2 was deployed with hectic speed, despite repeated breakdowns in American tests and without regard to the ensuing potential danger,' opposition Social Democrat MP Dieter Spori said Saturday. Spori represents the constituency in which the accident occurred.

Spori complained of the secrecy surrounding the new missiles and called for a parliamentary debate of the mishap and full disclosure of the facts.

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His remarks followed a chorus of calls from the anti-nuclear Greens Party -- the third largest party in West German's parliament -- for the missiles to be withdrawn.

The mobile, super-accurate Pershings are being deployed at three sites in West Germany by the U.S. Army's 56th Artillery Brigade. The rocket can carry a single 20 kiloton nuclear warhead -- the equivalent of 20,000 tons of TNT -- into the Soviet Union in about 12 minutes.

The development of the Pershing 2 has been checkered with test failures. Six out of the first 21 missiles launched suffered technical failure and misfired, Pentagon figures show.

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