CANBERRA, Australia: Australia said on Thursday that its special forces killed 39 unarmed civilians and prisoners in Afghanistan, as it released a long-awaited report into war crimes committed in the South Asian nation.
Australia launched the inquiry in 2016, amid reports from whistle-blowers and in the local media of the killing of unarmed men and children that the government initially tried to suppress.
The long-awaited report revealed that Australian elite forces killed 39 Afghans Muslims in an environment where “blood lust” and “competition killings” were reportedly a norm.
Speaking on Thursday, Chief of the Australian Defense Force General Angus Campbell said there had been a “warrior culture” among some members of Australia’s special forces serving in Afghanistan.
One alleged incident, the details of which have been redacted to protect the identities of those involved, is referred to in the document as “possibly the most disgraceful episode in Australia’s military history.”
The Australian Defense Force’s (ADF) four-year inquiry into alleged war crimes in Afghanistan alleges that some patrol commanders, who were treated as “demigods” required junior soldiers to shoot prisoners to achieve their first kill, in a process known as “blooding”.
The report presents what it says is “credible information” that weapons or handheld radios were then sometimes allegedly placed by a body to make it seem like the person had been killed in action.
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The report further revealed that none of the 39 killings happened in the heat of battle and the Afghans who died were non-combatants or no longer combatants.
Campbell “sincerely and unreservedly” apologised to the people of Afghanistan for the conduct of the soldiers which the report highlighted. “It would have devastated the lives of Afghan families and communities, causing immeasurable pain and suffering,” he said.
The ADF is recommending that Australia’s Federal Police (AFP) investigate 19 individuals from the Australian Special Forces over 36 war crimes, including murder and cruel treatment of non-combatants in Afghanistan between 2009 and 2013.
Detailing the findings, General Campbell said the investigation found evidence that members of the Australian special forces had killed prisoners, farmers or other civilians.
The report “found there to be credible information to substantiate 23 incidents of alleged unlawful killing of 39 people by 25 Australian special forces personnel predominantly from the Special Air Service Regiment,” Campbell told reporters.
“These findings allege the most serious breaches of military conduct and professional values,” he said, adding: “The unlawful killing of civilians and prisoners is never acceptable.”
In March 2016, an inquiry was set up by the Australian Defense Force, under the leadership of Maj-Gen Paul Brereton, to investigate allegations that Australian special forces had “breached the law of armed conflict in Afghanistan between 2005 and 2016.”
More than 26,000 Australian soldiers served in Afghanistan during Operation Slipper, 41 of whom died while fighting there. There are still about 80 personnel from the Australian Defence Forces in Afghanistan, according to the Department of Defence website, mostly involved in support and training.
Campbell said that some of the soldiers who had been accused of war crimes in the report were still serving in Australia’s military.
Hours before the bombshell report was released, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison reached out to Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani over the alleged misconduct of Australian troops in Afghanistan, according to a statement released by the Afghan government.