Categorical: 'NZ troops did not kill civilians'

STACEY KIRK
Last updated 12:27 01/07/2014
ROBERT KITCHIN/Stuff.co.nz

Defence Minister Jonathan Coleman says NZ troops were not involved in civilian deaths during a 2010 SAS mission that reportedly killed six Afghan civilians, including a child.

John Key
DAVID WHITE/Fairfax NZ
JOHN KEY: "There were no revenge missions in Afghanistan".
Tim O'Donnell
KILLED IN AFGHANISTAN: Lieutenant Tim O'Donnell
Jon Stephenson2
DIEGO OPATOWSKI/Fairfax NZ
JON STEPHENSON: Witnesses spoken to said there were no insurgents in the village at the time of the attack.

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Defence Minister Jonathan Coleman has categorically denied New Zealand troops were involved in the deaths of Afghan civilians in a 2010 raid.

But he could not rule out that deaths did occur at the hands of foreign forces.

Maori TV's Native Affairs programme last night aired a report with claims New Zealand Special Air Service (SAS) troops were involved in a joint operation that killed six Afghan villagers and injured 15 others.

The mission was previously reported in 2011, with details that nine insurgents were killed in the attack, but then-Defence Minister Wayne Mapp said reports of civilian deaths had been investigated and proved false.

It was speculated in 2011 that the mission was "revenge" for the death of Feilding soldier Lieutenant Timothy O'Donnell – something the Defence Force also rejected.

O'Donnell, 28, was killed when his three-vehicle patrol was attacked with explosives, rocket-propelled grenades and gunfire in northeast Bamiyan Province in August, 2010.

In last night's report, journalist Jon Stephenson said he spoke with some of the 15 people wounded in the night-time attack, who said six Afghans, including a child were killed.

Coleman said today he'd received some briefings on the incident, and would be getting more.

"What I would emphasise is New Zealanders were not involved - and that's categorical - in any civilian casualties or deaths," he said.

Coleman went as far to say there were "no deaths inflicted on civilians by any ground troops, by any nation".

But that did not mean there were no civilian casualties.

Coleman could not rule out civilian deaths occurred after fire from US helicopter gunships.

He refused to speak on operational details of the mission, when asked if helicopters were firing to provide air cover for troops on the ground.

"While you couldn't rule out that civilians didn't die through actions taken by other forces, it's absolutely categorical that New Zealand forces weren't involved in that," he said.

Coleman said he did "not accept" that civilians were "killed in the name of New Zealand", and he disagreed with a "whole lot of things" in last night's report.

The report painted O'Donnell's death as a catalyst for the night-time raid on the remote Afghan village.

It said the strike was against insurgents "believed to have been involved in a Kiwi soldier's death", and later mentioning O'Donnell.

Witnesses Stephenson spoke to said there were no insurgents in the village at the time of the attack and some produced cellphone images of what was believed to be the dead.

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The deaths were corroborated by an independent human rights commission in Afghanistan and described as "credible" in a coalition report on the operation, according to the Native Affairs report.

The villagers told Stephenson that Afghan and New Zealand SAS troops came off helicopters into the village, but it was after that, that helicopter gunfire killed six people.

Stephenson said the US military had already confirmed that gun sights on their helicopters malfunctioned during that mission and an unintended target might have been hit.

A New Zealand Defence Force spokesperson told Native Affairs that it stood by its statement of April 2011, that acknowledged the operation but denied any civilian deaths.

Prime Minister John Key also stood by the Defence Force version of what happened on the SAS mission.

"There were no revenge missions in Afghanistan," he said today.

"What there was, was situations where our SAS were involved in effectively prosecuting insurgents that were undertaking their own sorts of actions or fights that were going on.

"Our people did go in in those situations and many of them were reasonably high-profile as you know. But my understanding is that after a thorough review of the CDF [Chief of Defence Force] at the weekend, he is very confident that New Zealand Defence Force version of events is correct."

Key was not immediately sure if he was briefed on that particular mission and said he would have to check with his office.

But Stephenson this morning questioned Key's response over his knowledge, saying he had two sources who claimed Key signed off on it.

An earlier version of this report incorrectly said Jon Stephenson had referred to the mission as "revenge". Stephenson did not say this. His story made clear the mission was targeting insurgents allegedly responsible for O'Donnell's death, but did not use the word revenge.

- Stuff

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