Exclusive: Ministry of Defence releases documents linking three military units to bulk of civilian casualties
Today’s release by the MoD came in response to a request made by the Guardian under the Freedom of Information Act.
The conduct of three British military units in Afghanistan has come under serious question after the Ministry of Defence released unprecedented details of incidents in which troops attacked Afghan civilians.
The disclosure, in response to a request under the Freedom of Information Act made by the Guardian, revealed that of the casualties caused by British forces, two-thirds involved troops from the three units, triggering calls for an inquiry into their behaviour.
Releasing information about 21 incidents, the MoD revealed that the Coldstream Guards shot four civilians in Kabul over a period of three weeks; the Royal Marine commandos killed or wounded civilians eight times in six months; and the third unit, the Rifles, were involved in three incidents last year.
Among the casualties were children, and on one occasion a man with mental health problems.
Details of the attacks were not released at the time, but they were among thousands of incidents mentioned in US army logs posted by the whistle-blowing website WikiLeaks in the summer. Today’s release came after the Guardian pressed for more details of those cases.
One cluster of incidents involved the Coldstream Guards in Kabul in autumn 2007. On 21 October, they killed one individual and wounded two others in a silver minibus while on patrol in Kabul.
The MoD says the minibus failed to stop when the soldiers signalled for it to do so, and the guardsmen shot at it.
In another incident, on 6 November 2007, the son of an Afghan general was killed. He was driving a Toyota car and was said to have accelerated towards a Coldstream Guards patrol. The soldiers could only shout a warning before shooting at the car; it skidded to a halt and the man fell out, the MoD said.
The Coldstream Guards’ unofficial blog described the mood within the detachment at the time: “The overriding threat is that of suicide bombers, of which there have been a number in the recent past.”
The second cluster of civilian casualties involved the Royal Marines, who were stationed in Helmand province.
On 19 November 2008 they shot dead a child in a white Toyota which they believed was driving towards them. “There had been a report of a suicide bomber in the area,” said the MoD.
On 4 December 2008, marines wounded a man who had been “trying to locate his family as they had moved compounds”. The marines thought he had been tracking them, the MoD says.
That month, a 12-year-old boy was wounded when a van sped towards a Royal Marines patrol and “failed to stop after verbal warnings were given”.
On 19 January 2009, two children were injured “in their abdomens by shrapnel” after missiles were fired from above by unmanned drones. The Royal Marines had called for the air strikes, fearing they were being threatened by Taliban insurgents.
A few days later, the marines shot a man and a child after they believed two men were “reporting their progress” in order to prepare a bomb attack.
A mentally ill man was shot in the last incident, on 26 March 2009. The marines had received a report of a bomb threat when a man on a motorcycle “approached the patrol driving slowly and observing them”. He disappeared after warning shots were fired. But he soon returned. The marines thought he was an “imminent threat” and shot him, according to the MoD.
The Rifles were involved in three incidents last year, including calling in RAF aircraft whose bomb killed an undisclosed number of civilians in Nad-e-Ali, Helmand last September.
The Labour MP Paul Flynn called for an inquiry into the conduct of the units in what he said could be “atrocities in the name of the British people”. “Truth has a cleansing function,” he added.
Royal Marine commandos were the last UK troops to be stationed in Sangin, one of the most dangerous areas of Afghanistan, before handing over to US forces earlier this year. The Rifles sustained particularly severe casualties when they were deployed in Sangin at the beginning of this year. The Coldstream Guards, one of the oldest regiments in the British army, have been deployed in Afghanistan at regular intervals.
An MoD spokesman said: “We deeply regret all civilian casualties. Protecting the Afghan civilian population is a cornerstone of ISAF’s mission, and all British troops undergo comprehensive training on the strict rules of engagement. This contrasts directly with the attitude of the insurgents, whose indiscriminate use of suicide bombs, roadside explosive devices and human shields cause the majority of civilian deaths and injuries in Afghanistan. We will continue our efforts to prevent insurgents harming civilians and to develop the capacity of Afghan security forces to protect the population.”
Meanwhile, MEPs have demanded that European leaders challenge the US president, Barack Obama, over WikiLeaks’ disclosures of alleged torture in Iraq. They want the issue to be raised at the EU-US summit agenda next month.
Guy Verhofstadt, leader of the liberals group in the European parliament, said on Tuesday that the Obama administration had to investigate the “abuses” revealed by WikiLeaks.
“This will obviously be a sensitive topic for the US administration, but partners in the transatlantic alliance must be clear on common rules of engagement in times of conflict if we are to retain any moral standing in the world,” Verhofstadt said.
“Whilst the allegations concern actions undertaken during the previous Bush administration, it will be incumbent on the present one to investigate the abuses, pursue those complicit and lay down stricter guidelines for conduct in combat.”
“The US remains a hugely important ally in terms of security. We cannot afford to allow our standards to slip so far that respect for the rule of law is ignored.”