British lawmakers have called for an urgent investigation into “deeply disturbing” claims that UK special forces killed unarmed detainees in Afghanistan and planted weapons near the bodies to justify their actions.
A report by the BBC identified 54 suspicious killings made by a unit, or squadron, of the Special Air Service during a six-month tour of duty in 2010 and 2011 after analysing hundreds of pages of operational accounts.
The investigation also alleged that senior officers failed to report the killings and failed to disclose evidence to an inquiry carried out by military police.
The claims, screened on Tuesday night in a BBC Panorama documentary, called “SAS Death Squads Exposed: A British War Crime?”, comes as Ukraine and its western allies have accused Russian forces of committing multiple war crimes during their invasion.
“The optics of this don’t look good,” said Tobias Ellwood, Conservative chair of the House of Commons defence select committee. He urged armed forces minister James Heappey, who was appearing before the committee, to explain the situation. “It’s important that the Ministry of Defence is able to respond to put things into perspective,” he added.
Heappey said the government had been aware of some of the allegations made by the BBC. “They have been investigated, I believe, twice and on each occasion haven’t met the evidential threshold,” he said.
But Heappey added: “Let’s be clear, if there are new allegations, new evidence that comes to light consequent to the Panorama investigation and that is passed to the service police for investigation we will absolutely investigate it. Nobody in our organisation, however special, gets a bye on the law.”
The defence ministry said on Tuesday evening that the military police had contacted the BBC asking for any evidence of the alleged crimes to be “provided at the earliest opportunity”.
During the UK’s military presence in Afghanistan, SAS operatives carried out multiple raids on suspected Taliban targets with the aim of arresting militant leaders and bombmakers. Many of the missions were carried out at night and became known among special forces as “kill or capture” raids.
The BBC investigation claimed that flaws in intelligence meant innocent civilians were killed during these operations. The BBC also alleges that the different SAS squadrons competed with each other to get the most kills as they rotated in and out of the country
The squadron scrutinised by the BBC operated largely in Helmand province in southern Afghanistan, and was trying to achieve a higher body count than the one it had replaced, according to the report.
John Healey, Labour’s shadow defence secretary, described the report’s allegations as “deeply disturbing” and said they cast a dark shadow over the reputation of British special forces.
“The defence secretary must urgently explain to parliament what action he’ll take to verify any truth to these claims and any possible cover-up,” Healey said.
Jamie Stone, Lib Dem defence spokesperson, said the UK had “a proud history of standing against war crimes” and called for an urgent independent investigation.
Special forces from some of the UK’s allies have also faced allegations of unlawful killings in Afghanistan. In March, Andrew Hastie, a former officer in Australia’s Special Air Service Regiment who went on to become the country’s assistant minister of defence, told a Sydney court that its special forces were “incentivised” to execute detained Afghans because suspected Taliban fighters were being released within days of capture.
Mike Martin, a visiting fellow at King’s College London and a former British officer who served in Afghanistan, said a public inquiry was the only way to clear the situation.
“You simply can’t have a situation where British forces are being accused by a credible media organisation like the BBC of committing war crimes,” he said.
Martin, whose book An Intimate War is based on his field experience in Afghanistan, told BBC radio that the “cavalier approach to the job” by allied special forces was “common knowledge”.
Martin disputed the government’s claim that it had carried out an independent investigation into the alleged events as it was conducted by the military police “which is under the military chain of command. So that’s not independent.”
Read the full article here