23 Mar 2017

Former defence minister rejects Afghan war crimes claim

8:56 am on 23 March 2017

A former Defence Minister is rejecting claims SAS soldiers could have committed war crimes when they attacked two Afghan villages in 2010.

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Hit and Run says three-year-old Fatima was killed in the raid - a claim Wayne Mapp says is credible. Photo: Jon Stephenson

A new book, Hit and Run, accuses New Zealand's elite soliders of leading a 2010 attack in which six civilians died and 15 were injured.

Wayne Mapp, who was minister at the time, now accepts civilians died in the attacks but said soldiers at the time were acting in the honest belief they were under attack.

When the raid first became public in 2011, Dr Mapp denied any civilians were killed.

Former Cabinet Minister Wayne Mapp.

Wayne Mapp Photo: Supplied / Parliament

The first he learned of any possible civilian deaths was from a television programme in 2014, he said.

"The television programme on Māori Television ... indicated a 3-year-old had been killed. And there was enough in my mind, supporting evidence around that, that made that a credible claim, at least on the face of it," he told RNZ.

"I also knew of course, that the people we were actually targeting had not been arrested."

But he clarified there was no reason for either him or the Defence Force to suspect there were civilian deaths at the time, and that the people killed in the raid were "moving towards the New Zealanders on the ground".

"And I knew of course that the people we were actually targeting had not been arrested, or killed, but we were in a village that at least from that direction, we'd been under constant attack, the PRT [Provincial Reconstruction Team] had been under constant attack."

The village was "hostile", Dr Mapp said.

"Bomb-makers and the like lived there.

"Bear in mind [it's] insurgents here, it's not like it's a full-time job wearing a uniform, you can be a farmer by day and an insurgent by night, that's the reality."

Dr Mapp confirmed he described the operation as a "fiasco" because the mission did not achieve its objective.

But he did not accept any suggestions the attacks were war crimes.

"I think that's fundamentally wrong, because - and this was the point of the investigation - that was specifically dealt with.

"If you believe in an honest and reasonable belief that ... people are attacking you, then you're entitled to defend yourself. That's very, very clear."

The raids had been a counter-insurgency operation and so there were always going to be civilians around, Dr Mapp said.

"If people are moving towards you looking like they're in a tactical formation, then you're entitled to defend yourself."

Dr Mapp's comments strike a different tone from both the government and the Defence Force.

The Defence Force has issued only one statement in response to the book, saying an investigation at the time rejected claims that civilians were killed.

That inquiry was carried out by Afghan and US-led coalition forces in the week after the attack.

The ISAF news release on 29 August 2010, in fact, admitted civilians may have been injured or killed.

Former army chief responds

Retired Lieutenant General Rhys Jones was Chief of Army at the time of the raid and was subsequently Chief of Defence Force between 2011 and 2014.

He was "pretty confident" there were no civilian deaths, he said.

"As far as I'm aware, the official report is accurate. I have no reason to believe that there was any cover up of information from that report."

Prime Minister Bill English was briefed on allegations in the book yesterday and said: "There isn't anything new that's been suggested."

"The inquiries that have been conducted so far have made pretty clear that New Zealand defence force personnel at all times conducted themselves according to the rules of engagement," Mr English said.

The book's co-authors, investigative journalists Jon Stephenson and Nicky Hager, have called for the government to apologise and launch a full official inquiry into the events.

Mr English did not rule out ordering an inquiry, but said there would be a high threshhold and that the case for one did not appear to be strong.