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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A U.S. federal judge erred in dismissing all charges against five Blackwater Worldwide security guards accused of killing 14 Iraqi civilians in 2007, an appeals court ruled on Friday.
The unanimous three-judge panel reinstated the charges and sent the case back to the judge for more proceedings, handing a victory to the U.S. Justice Department in a high-profile prosecution dating to 2008.
The five guards were charged with 14 counts of manslaughter, 20 counts of attempt to commit manslaughter and one weapons violation count over a Baghdad shooting that outraged Iraqis and strained ties between the two countries.
The shooting occurred as the private security firm's guards escorted a heavily armed four-truck convoy of U.S. diplomats through the Iraqi capital on September 16, 2007. The guards, U.S. military veterans, were responding to a car bombing when gunfire erupted at a crowded intersection.
U.S. District Judge Ricardo Urbina ruled in December 2009 that prosecutors violated the defendants' constitutional rights and the case was tainted by use of statement the guards made to State Department investigators under a threat of job loss.
The appeals court reversed that ruling that the indictment of the guards had been improperly obtained through the use of their compelled statements. It ruled Urbina wrongly interpreted the law.
The appeals court sent the case back to Urbina to determine what evidence, if any, the government presented had been tainted and whether it was harmless.
The defendants -- Paul Slough, Evan Liberty, Dustin Heard, Donald Ball and Nicholas Slatten -- were employed by Blackwater Worldwide, which is now known as Xe Services.
Prosecutors have dismissed the charges against Slatten.
Justice Department spokesman Dean Boyd said, "We're pleased with the ruling and are assessing the next steps."
The government had argued that whatever knowledge prosecutors and investigators may have had of the defendants' statements to the State Department, they did not make improper use of them in building their case.
A sixth Blackwater guard pleaded guilty to charges of voluntary manslaughter and attempt to commit manslaughter, and has agreed to cooperate with prosecutors.
Editing by Bill Trott