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Sat 1 Mar 2008 01:54 PM

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Prince Harry pulled out of Afghanistan

Royal returns to UK after deployment exposed by US website during UK media blackout.

Prince Harry pulled out of Afghanistan
MILITARY TOUR: Prince Harry, pictured, has returned to the UK after a US website exposed his deployment in Afghanistan. (AFP)

Prince Harry returned to Britain from Afghanistan Saturday after a 10-week tour fighting the Taliban, to be reunited with his father Prince Charles and elder brother Prince William.

An unmarked military plane carrying the 23-year-old touched down at Royal Air Force Base Brize Norton near Oxford, south central England, after he was pulled out of war-torn Afghanistan on security grounds.

Harry, a junior officer in the Household Cavalry, had been in the volatile southern province of Helmand since mid-December but foreign media on Thursday broke a news blackout deal arranged with Britain's defence ministry.

The young royal, who is third in line to the throne, filed down the steps of the RAF blue-coloured Tristar jet behind some of Britain's 7,800-strong contingent in the Nato coalition whose tours had also ended.

There was no official welcome on the tarmac for the returning soldiers. Harry, still wearing combat fatigues and carrying his kit and body armour over one shoulder, followed them as they trekked into the terminal building.

Media reports said he was to travel immediately to his father's nearby country residence, Highgrove, as talk turned to his future role in the military.

Harry's deployment made him the first British royal to be see frontline action since his uncle, Prince Andrew, flew as a naval helicopter pilot during the 1982 Falklands War with Argentina.

He had been due to go to Iraq last year, but military top brass performed an about-turn amid concern about his security and that of his fellow soldiers.

That left him on the verge of quitting the army until he was offered the chance to serve in Afghanistan as a battlefield air controller.

Television pictures aired since US website Drudge Report broke the embargo Thursday have shown him calling in air strikes on Taliban positions and firing at insurgents with a machine gun.

His work has won wide praise from his grandmother, Queen Elizabeth II, political and military leaders, and also claims that he is itching to return to frontline duties.

The UK's Daily Telegraph quoted an unnamed royal official as saying: "He is frustrated about coming back and leaving his friends behind. But he is realistic and understands the way of the world.

"He hopes he can go back as his presence went undetected for 10 weeks. He feels he played a real role over there. But he knows it is a matter for the Ministry of Defence."

And The Sun tabloid claimed army officer William, 25, - who recently began training as a Royal Air Force pilot - will be commissioned into the Royal Navy and serve on a frigate or destroyer in a world troublespot later this year.

The Defence Ministry refused to comment.

Now he has withdrawn, it can be reported that until Friday Harry was operating with a light tank squadron in the desert outside the former Taliban stronghold of Musa Qala, that British and Afghan troops seized last December.

Harry, a second lieutenant in the Blues and Royals regiment of the Household Cavalry, also commanded a seven-strong Spartan vehicle team supporting a major US and Afghan push last week to clear a route through to the Kajaki Dam.

The prince - who has gained a reputation for hard-partying and attracting trouble at home - told reporters who visited him in Afghanistan that he enjoyed being away from the glare of media publicity.

But he acknowledged his tour could make him a "top target" for extremists and said he had been nicknamed "bullet magnet".

A number of British newspapers quoted foreign-based Islamists as agreeing that Harry's role could incense radicals, but mainstream Muslim opinion in Britain has been largely supportive.

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