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Dispute over Afghan death claims - and PM still open to inquiry

Monday 27th March 2017

Read statements from both sides.


The cover of Hit & Run, written by Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson.
The cover of Hit & Run, written by Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson.

Photo: Hans Weston/RNZ

The authors of Hit & Run and the Defence Force are taking very public shots at each other, and it ain’t pretty.

The new book, written by investigative journalists Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson, was released last week claiming six civilians died and 15 were wounded in raids in Afghanistan in 2010 directed by the New Zealand SAS, alongside US and Afghan troops.

The Defence Force’s initial response was straightforward - “[An] investigation concluded that the allegations of civilian casualties were unfounded.”

Hit & Run says three-year-old Fatima was killed in the raid.
Hit & Run says three-year-old Fatima was killed in the raid.

Photo: Jon Stephenson

However, calls for a public inquiry swelled last week, as former Defence Minister Wayne Mapp emerged to confirm civilians had been killed in the raid. “If people are moving towards you looking like they're in a tactical formation then you're entitled to defend yourself, that's the circumstance they were facing, they considered they were under attack,” he told RNZ.

NZ Herald journalist David Fisher then interviewed an SAS member who told him New Zealand snipers had indeed shot dead two civilians.

After a week of silence, the Defence Force came out punching yesterday, releasing a statement accusing Hit & Run of "major inaccuracies" and being essentially "incorrect".

They said New Zealand troops had never operated in the two villages identified in the book as being the subject of raids - Naik and Khak Khuday Dad. They did concede that civilian deaths during a separate operation, two kilometres south, were “possible”.

The Defence Force's statement in full:

The central premise of Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson’s book, Hit and Run, is incorrect, says the Chief of Defence Force, Lieutenant General Tim Keating. NZDF troops never operated in the two villages identified in the book as having been the scene of combat operations and civilian casualties.

Since the release of the book, the New Zealand Defence Force has spent considerable time reviewing the claims contained in it, despite the allegations of civilian casualties being the subject of a NATO investigation in 2010.

Upon review of Hit and Run, it is evident there are some major inaccuracies – the main one being the location and names of the villages where the authors claim civilians were killed and property was destroyed wilfully during a New Zealand-led operation. The villages are named in the book as Naik and Khak Khuday Dad, but the NZDF can confirm that NZDF personnel have never operated in these villages.

The authors appear to have confused interviews, stories and anecdotes from locals with an operation conducted more than two kilometres to the south, known as Operation Burnham. The villages in the Hager and Stephenson book and the settlement which was the site of Operation Burnham, called Tirgiran, are separated by mountainous and difficult terrain.

The NZDF has used the geographical references in the book and cross-referenced them with our own material.

During Operation Burnham, New Zealand was supported by coalition partners, which included air support capacity as previously reported. The ISAF investigation determined that a gun sight malfunction on a coalition helicopter resulted in several rounds falling short, missing the intended target and instead striking two buildings.

This investigation concluded that this may have resulted in civilian casualties but no evidence of this was established. Hit and Run does not prove civilian casualties were sustained in the village where Operation Burnham took place.

The NZDF reiterates its position that New Zealand personnel acted appropriately during this operation and were not involved in the deaths of civilians or any untoward destruction of property.

The NZDF welcomes anyone with information relevant to Operation Burnham to come forward and be assured that any allegations of offending by NZDF personnel would be taken seriously and investigated in accordance with our domestic and international legal obligations.

Hager and Stephenson responded this morning, saying they were shocked and confused by the statement. In an interview with RNZ, Hager said they stood by the dozens of people they interviewed, some of whom were eyewitnesses to the raid.

“I find it completely staggering that after five days this is what they’ve come up with because it is completely lacking in credibility,” said Hager.

Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson's response.

Prime Minister Bill English also weighed in on RNZ this morning. He has previously said he is 100 percent behind the Defence Force, but tempered that a little by saying: “There's been so much discussion about this, so many kind of layers of sources and allegations that I think any statement made outside the scope of the original investigation is one you'd need to look into pretty carefully”.

The book makes a direct plea to English and calls for an independent inquiry into the raids.

The Prime Minister is still not ruling that out: “If there was ... other evidence that came forward, now, of course we'd be interested in that.”

Hager’s response was if there is confusion, “resolve it with an inquiry”. The Labour and Green parties have already spoken up in support of an inquiry.

Former Chief of the Defence Force, Rhys Jones, has said he’s "pretty confident" there were no civilian casualties in the raids.

Join the discussion »

“"Cover up" is a politically correct description of the crime 'Conspiring to defeat justice' which had, or in fact still has despite the Mahon Report, a seven years in prison penalty on each count. The only way to resolve this is to either bring charges against the head and former head of the Defence Department in respect of the issue of the shooting of a teacher and calling him an enemy insurgent, or to charge the journalists for bringing false accusations. The actions resulting in the death of a young child must surely result convictions because, culpable in the death or not; there or not, the Chiefs have still committed the crime of conspiring to cover up because they must have knowledge of the deaths. The likelihood of them not knowing is not within the realm of reasonable doubt. They must know such things. That is their jobs. That is what they were paid for. And yet they have denied knowing” — Dennis

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