SAS complained at US treatment of prisoners

By Audrey Young

New Zealand SAS forces deployed in Afghanistan complained about the handling of prisoners they had captured and handed over to the United States, the Herald has been told.

The elite soldiers were so concerned they called a meeting of other special forces at Kandahar base.

The forces, including Australia, Canada, Norway, Germany and Britain, were involved in what were called "snatch-grabs" - missions to round up terrorist suspects to hand over to the United States for detention and interrogation.

But New Zealand soldiers were said to be concerned that some of the detainees handed over by them had not been properly registered.

Instead of being identified, photographed and fingerprinted and having their weapons properly registered, they had their heads shaved, no photos or ID taken and their belongings thrown into a single pile.

The New Zealanders raised the alarm and wanted to know from other forces whether the proper procedures were being followed by them.

The meeting took place in 2002, according to a Danish military source.

Denmark was among the countries that sent special forces to Afghanistan after the September 11 terrorist attack on New York's World Trade Centre and it was among the forces present at the meeting called by some of the New Zealand soldiers on the ground.

Defence Minister Phil Goff said he was not aware of such a meeting having taken place - and nor was his predecessor Mark Burton - though he conceded that he would not necessarily hear about meetings at an operational level.

But he revealed that after the first deployment of the SAS to Afghanistan the former New Zealand Defence Force chief, Bruce Ferguson, negotiated a deal with the International Committee of the Red Cross to follow up on any prisoners New Zealand forces helped to capture.

Mr Goff said the New Zealand SAS had been involved in the detention of prisoners on two occasions but had held them for no more than five hours before handing them over to the United States and Canada.

He said New Zealand had been involved in the capture of between 50 and 70 prisoners.

"We followed up to see what had happened to those people and to the best of our knowledge, none of those people are still in custody in the hands of US authorities."

Asked if the Red Cross agreement pointed to New Zealand being unhappy with the treatment of prisoners, Mr Goff said: "We were uncomfortable with the fact that we didn't have a procedure whereby people could be immediately followed up on and that's why ... that arrangement was made with the ICRC."

Mr Goff acknowledged there was some debate about whether detainees in those circumstances were prisoners of war or not.

"We from quite an early stage have made it clear that our expectation is that all detainees are treated humanely and in accordance with international law."

New Zealand has had three deployments of SAS in Afghanistan: two of six months and another of 12 months. The last mission ended in November 2005 and Mr Goff said a new deployment was not being considered "at the present time."

Mr Goff told reporters yesterday that international forces in Afghanistan were bracing themselves against a greater threat in the coming months.

There have been reports that al Qaeda fighters are gathering on the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan for a summer offensive.

"Fortunately in our area of responsibility in Bamian the local people are strongly behind New Zealand's presence there and the good work we do in regard to both development and stability.

"So it's not an immediate high level threat in Bamian, but naturally we are not complacent about the risk that can exist, even in an area where our presence is welcomed."

New Zealand has 116 troops in Bamian province in the Provincial Reconstruction Team.

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