WELLINGTON, March 27 (Xinhua) — The commander of New Zealand’s armed forces on Monday refuted claims that special forces killed civilians in a botched raid in Afghanistan but questions remained about the accusations.
Chief of Defence Force Lieutenant-General Tim Keating told a live broadcast press conference that the claims made by two investigative journalists in the book “Hit and Run” appeared to have confused a raid led by New Zealand’s Special Air Service (SAS) with an unrelated action 2 km away.
Keating conceded that civilians might have been killed in the SAS-led raid, dubbed Operation Burnham, on the village of Tirgiran in August 2010.
However, he said, the premise of the book was incorrect, and New Zealand troops had never operated in the two villages named in the book – Khak Khuday Dad and Naik.
The book, released last week claimed the Special Air Service led U.S. and Afghan forces in a raid that killed six civilians including a 3-year-old girl in the two villages in Afghanistan’s Baghlan province.
Another 15 civilians were wounded in the villages where the SAS mistakenly believed they would find insurgents who had attacked a New Zealand patrol 19 days earlier, killing a New Zealand officer, in neighboring Bamiyan, the book claimed.
An air force officer said at the press conference that the two locations were “significantly different” from each other.
Khak Khuday Dad and Naik were in a dry valley, while Tirgiran was a lush location at the confluence of two rivers.
Keating said it was “highly unlikely” that the New Zealand-led force had also raided nearby villages that could have been confused with Operation Burnham.
He was not asked, and did not offer any explanation, of who could have raided Khak Khuday Dad and Naik.
He said the conduct of the SAS throughout Operation Burnham has been “exemplary.”
An International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) report into the operation concluded there might have been some civilian deaths, after rounds fired by a U.S. Apache helicopter fell short, hitting a building where civilians could have been.
But civilian casualties had not been corroborated, he said.
In total, nine identified insurgents were killed, he said.
The New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) issued a statement of rebuttal on Sunday and “Hit and Run” authors Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson responded Monday, saying they stood by the facts in their book.
They said in a statement that the NZDF response to the book was “bizarre and a continuation of seven years of cover up.”
“We are absolutely confident that an SAS raid took place on Aug. 22, 2010, where six civilians were killed and another 15 injured,” they said.
“We have testimony about these events from members of the SAS, Afghan commandos and people living in the villages that were raided, Naik and Khak Khuday Dad. The SAS and villagers both talked about assaults on the same named people’s houses. It is actually impossible that the story is wrong.”
New Zealand lawmakers have called for an independent probe into the claims, but Prime Minister Bill English told Radio New Zealand Monday that allegations of war crimes appeared to be unfounded and there was unlikely to be an inquiry into that.