WATCH

Chief of Defence Force Lieutenant General Tim Keating on claims the SAS killed innocent civilians.

Posted by nzherald.co.nz on Sunday, 26 March 2017

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Camera footage of helicopters used during SAS raids in Afghanistan has been cited by the Chief of Defence Force in a vigorous defence of New Zealand actions.

Lieutenant General Tim Keating has fronted media and said he would not be opposed to an inquiry, although he questioned the legal grounds for one.

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Keating also suggested he will seek footage of helicopters supporting the SAS, saying it could be released to people with appropriate security classification.

"That camera footage, one, provides irrefutable evidence of what was being engaged by the coalition aircraft. And, two, it is geo-referenced so it gives the location of where those engagements occurred. I have seen it."

Standing before maps of the Tirgiran Valley area where the 2010 raids occurred, Keating outlined the reasons why allegations by journalists Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson are wrong.

Hager and Stephenson tonight stood by their claims and suggested Keating was doing everything in his power to avoid an inquiry, which has been called for by Labour, the Green Party, NZ First and United Future.

Author Nicky Hager. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Author Nicky Hager. Photo / Mark Mitchell

The book, Hit & Run, claims six civilians were killed and 15 were injured in a 2010 raid by the NZSAS in Baghlan province.

Today, Keating said that during "Operation Burnham" supporting US aircraft targeted insurgents on the outside of a village, and SAS troops on the ground noticed its fire was falling short into a building where civilians may have been present along with insurgents.

"The weapon malfunctioned and some rounds went into that building. There is no confirmation that any casualties occurred, but there may have been."

Keating said nine insurgents were killed. One was shot by an SAS member.

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After the raid a delegation approach the local governor claiming civilians had been killed.

That led to an investigation by the Interior and International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), which concluded the malfunctioning gun sight could have resulted in civilian casualties.

After the book's release last week the Defence Force issued a statement in which it stood by its 2011 position that insurgents were killed and allegations that civilians died were "unfounded".

Keating struggled to explain why that term had been used, when it was aware civilian casualties may have occurred because of the helicopter gun malfunction.

"I'm not going to get cute here and say it's a twist on words but it is the same thing - unfounded, there may have been. The official line is there may have been casualties."

Keating said he would be willing to consider releasing documents and other evidence related Operation Burnham.

He said NZDF personnel have never been in the villages named in the book as Naik and Khak Khuday Dad. Rather, the area covered in Operation Burnham were some 2km away, and terrain completely different to that of the villages at the centre of Hit & Run.

"It seems to me that one of the fundamentals...is to tie the alleged perpetrators of a crime to the scene of the crime," Keating said, also rejecting the book's claim the raids were in revenge after the death of soldier Timothy O'Donnell, the first New Zealand combat death in Afghanistan.

"The bottom-line - revenge was never a driver. We are a professional force," Keating said.

"It's not only the New Zealand Defence Force reputation, it's the New Zealand reputation."

Hager said the NZDF should welcome the prospect of an inquiry - or failing that should release some of its evidence.

"What they could easily do is release the full, uncensored documents like the post-activity reports, the planning documents, the operational plans, battle assessment reports - if they want to release real stuff then we could all look at it.

"Even if they were right that the location of the attack was a couple of kilometres from where we wrote [it was] - which I think they are wrong about - it's not the central premise of the book. All the important parts, about the people that were hurt, the motives of going there and the blowing up of buildings...all completely stand. This feels to me very much like a diversion."

Prime Minister Bill English said today there won't be any inquiry into allegations the SAS was possibly involved in war crimes as a result of actions during the raids, but didn't rule out an inquiry or investigation into other claims.