LONDON – A BBC investigation alleged Tuesday that British special forces killed dozens of detainees in suspicious circumstances during counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan a decade ago.
Citing newly obtained military documents, the broadcaster alleged that one SAS unit may have unlawfully killed 54 people in the southern Helmand province in 2010 to 2011. It also alleged that the former head of U.K. special forces knew about the alleged killings, but didn't pass on the evidence to a murder inquiry.
The Ministry of Defense said the report “jumps to unjustified conclusions from allegations that have already been fully investigated.”
The ministry said two independent investigations have looked into the conduct of British forces in Afghanistan and that neither found sufficient evidence to prosecute.
“Insinuating otherwise is irresponsible, incorrect and puts our brave Armed Forces personnel at risk both in the field and reputationally,” it said in a statement.
“The Ministry of Defense of course stands open to considering any new evidence, there would be no obstruction,” it added.
British forces were deployed to Afghanistan since 2001 as part of a NATO-led international coalition after the Sept. 11 attacks. Thousands of British troops were sent to Helmand from 2006 to help with providing security for reconstruction projects, but they were soon drawn into combat operations.
The BBC investigation focused on one six-month deployment by an SAS squadron that operated in Helmand from late 2010. It said the unit carried out “kill or capture” raids to detain Taliban commanders and disrupt bomb-making networks.
The investigation reported that intelligence flaws meant innocent civilians were sometimes caught up in the operations.
Citing operational reports detailing the special forces' accounts of night raids, the BBC said it found “a pattern” of similar reports of Afghan men being shot dead because they pulled out weapons after they were detained.
Officials were concerned that more people were killed than weapons were reportedly recovered during some raids — suggesting the SAS soldiers were shooting unarmed people, the report said.
The report said internal emails showed that senior officials were concerned but failed to report the suspicions to military police.
Opposition lawmaker John Healey described the allegations as “deeply disturbing,” and urged Defense Secretary Ben Wallace to explain to Parliament what action he would take to verify the claims.
The last U.K. forces and their NATO allies withdrew from Afghanistan last summer, nearly 20 years after the first Western soldiers were deployed there.