National Court Judge Santiago Pedraz issued the arrest warrant for Sgt. Shawn Gibson, Capt. Philip Wolford and Lt. Col. Philip de Camp, all of the US Army's 3rd Infantry Division, a court official said on Wednesday.

Pedraz had sent two requests to the United States - in April 2004 and June 2005 - to have statements taken from the suspects or to obtain permission for a Spanish delegation to quiz them. Both went unanswered.

The warrant "is the only effective measure to ensure the presence of the suspects in the case being handled by Spanish justice, given the lack of judicial cooperation by US authorities," the judge said.

Under Spanish law, a crime committed against a Spaniard abroad can be prosecuted in Spain if it is not investigated in the country where it is committed.

Reuters cameraman Taras
Portsyuk was rushed to hospital

Jose Couso, who worked for the Spanish television network Telecinco, died on 8 April 2003, after the tank crew fired a shell at the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad where many journalists were staying to cover the war.

Reuters cameraman Taras Portsyuk, a Ukrainian, was also killed in the same incident. The Spanish judge said he issued the arrest order because of a lack of judicial cooperation from the US regarding the case.

Retaliation

US officials insist the soldiers believed they were being shot at when they opened fire. Following the incident, the then US Secretary of State Colin Powell said American troops opened fire after drawing hostile fire from the hotel. He said a US review of the incident found the use of force was justified.

In late 2003, the National Court - acting on a request from Couso's family - agreed to consider filing criminal charges against three members of the tank crew.

Couso's attorney Pilar Hermoso welcomed the decision although she recognised that it would be difficult to get the soldiers extradited to Spain, the state news agency Efe reported.

Small protests over the killing have been staged outside the US Embassy in Madrid nearly every month since Couso's death.