IRAQ - The court martial of seven British paratroopers accused of murdering an Iraqi teenager has collapsed amid accusations and recriminations.

While the supporters of the soldiers declared the charges should not have been brought in the first place, the family of 18-year-old Nadhem Abdullah, who was beaten to death, protested against an act of "injustice".

The hearing's judge ruled there was insufficient evidence to continue with the prosecution.

Abdullah's family said that they were "surprised" and "saddened" by the collapse of the case. Fadil al-Saqer, a cousin, said "We did not even know the trial has stopped. We had members of the family, neighbours, go to England because we were told that there will be justice. But this is not justice. Who can you trust?

"This is very sad. We do not know what to do now. Are they saying Nadhem was not killed?"

The trial, one of the highest profile of a series of cases arising from the Iraq war, has already cost around 10 million ($25.7 million) - one of the most expensive court martials in recent military history.

The soldiers were accused of using their "fists, boot, rifles and helmets" to kill Abdullah at al-Ferkah, in Maysan province, north of Basra in May 2003.

The assault was described by the prosecution as "gratuitous", "unjustified" and "unprovoked", and the court was told that blood matching the dead man's DNA was found on a rifle used by 25-year-old Private Samuel May.

The Ministry of Defence said the defendants still serving in the Army would now return to duty.

The judge said he understood the problems faced in carrying out inquiries about the alleged murder because of the turmoil in Iraq. But he added: "After discarding the evidence that is too inherently weak or vague for any sensible person to rely on it, prosecution evidence taken at its highest is such that a reasonable jury or court martial board properly directed could never reach the high standard of proof required to be sure of the guilt of any defendant."

He added that the investigators made "serious omissions" in searching for hospital and burial records in Iraq and not taking DNA swabs from Abdullah's relations to exclude them as a possible source of the bloodstain found on May's rifle. He also pointed out that the defendants were not interviewed under caution until six months after the incident.

During the trial an Iraqi woman who claimed to have been brutally attacked by the paratroopers while she was pregnant admitted under cross-examination that this was a "wicked lie". She added "I am ashamed of it [telling a lie]. I don't know what I was saying." Last week the court was told the 18-year-old and other witnesses, were being paid US$100 ($145) while giving evidence at the trial.

The Ministry of Defence said it was common practice to cover expenses of witnesses while they gave evidence and that, in this particular case, they had travelled a long distance to do so.

But the judge said: "The witnesses frequently spoke of 'fasil' or blood money and compensation to what were patently exaggerated claims ... Had the Iraqi witnesses turned out to be credible, then the case would have been stronger."

Defence solicitor Gilbert Blades said: "This case was not properly investigated."

The paratroopers all denied murder and violent conduct.

- Independent