Credible sources are emerging to cast doubt on NZ Defence Force denials civilians were killed during an NZSAS "revenge" raid in Afghanistan.
As calls for an inquiry into claims in Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson's new book Hit & Run grow, the NZ Defence Force has refused any comment or interviews beyond a flat denial civilians were killed even as senior commanders were called to provide further briefings to Prime Minister Bill English.
Late yesterday, the governor of Bamyan province in Afghanistan Habiba Sarabi told the Herald she learned from people close to where the raid happened that civilians had been killed during the 2010 operation in neighbouring Baghlan province.
"We have to avoid civilian casualties but sometimes it happens. I have heard from Baghlan people from the community close to Bamyan that there were civilian casualties.
"I don't know the number of civilian casualties but in a conflict there's sometimes civilian casualties happening. It is, of course, war."
And former defence minister Wayne Mapp - who held the role at the time of the raid - told Newshub: "One of the disasters of war is these terrible things can happen. At the time of the attack they thought they were being attacked by insurgents."
In Hit & Run, Mapp was quoted as telling a friend the raid was "our biggest and most disastrous operation. A fiasco". He would not deny making the comments.
The statements lend credence to detailed claims in the new book from author Nicky Hager and war correspondent Jon Stephenson called Hit & Run: The New Zealand SAS in Afghanistan and the meaning of honour. It said the August 2010 mission was led by New Zealand's NZSAS and saw six civilians killed and 15 wounded in a botched raid in which none of the intended targets were killed.
Instead, the sound of gunfire as the NZSAS were inserted into the area led to a barrage from United States Apache gunships. It was during this that Hit & Run says four people were killed and many wounded. Two more people were killed by bullets, leading to speculation the NZSAS gunned down civilians.
While the bulk of the casualties came from the US helicopters, the premise of Hit & Run is that the raid was inspired, investigated, organised and led by the NZSAS seeking "revenge" for the death of Lieutenant Tim O'Donnell, our first combat fatality in Afghanistan.
Among the dead was 3-year-old Fatima, daughter of Abdul Khaliq in the village of Khak Khuday Dad.
One local was quoted saying: "She was in her mother's arms when a piece of shrapnel hit her head."
Fatima's sister Hanifa, 4, and brother Abdullah, 7, were wounded. The boy was quoted saying: "When we have cold weather the pain in my head gets worse. We become angry and upset when we remember that time, but what can we do?"
The NZ Defence Force has refused to make detailed comment other than citing an inquiry by the International Security Assistance Force, stating: "The investigation concluded that the allegations of civilian casualties were unfounded."
It has not released a copy of the ISAF inquiry and has also refused to say whether it carried out its own investigation into the raid.
Both the Labour Party and Green Party have called for inquiries into the allegations as English found himself pushed for assurances about the NZSAS actions.
In Parliament, English said he had an "initial briefing" from the Defence Force about the incident and had been briefed on some of the claims in the book which he described as "difficult to substantiate".
Asked by Labour leader Andrew Little if he could be sure no civilians were killed during the raid, English said he had asked the same question of NZDF.
English said on the basis of the ISAF investigation that NZDF personnel had followed the rules of engagement and "civilian casualties have not been substantiated".
Asked if the NZSAS had asked for "fire support" from the Apaches, English said he was seeking "more written advice" from NZDF.
He said the public needed to know "there is close legal scrutiny of the planning of these operations and in review of them".
He said "the government would not be rushed" into holding an inquiry but planned to meet with Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee and Chief of Defence Force Lieutenant General Tim Keating when they returned from a visit to troops in Iraq.
NZDF's blunt denial of civilian casualties also included a statement that it had no power to investigate other nations' militaries.
The statement from NZDF contrasted with comments by former defence minister Jonathan Coleman in 2014, when he said "you probably can't rule out" civilians being killed by Apache gunship fire.
1) NZ Defence Force
2011 and 2017: "The investigation (by the International Security Assistance Force) concluded that the allegations of civilian casualties were unfounded"
2) Former Prime Minister John Key "We don't discuss the detail of SAS operations, but what we do say categorically is that no New Zealand soldier was involved in killing civilians."
3) Jonathan Coleman, defence minister 2011-2014
2014: "You couldn't rule out there may have been civilian casualties" - in relation to Apache gunship fire during the raid.
4) Wayne Mapp, defence minister 2008-2011
2011: "That's been investigated and proven to be false.... I am satisfied around that."
2017: "In 2014 I was informed that, I saw it on TV in fact, that a 3-year-old was killed, I'm sure everyone is remorseful about that."