Afghanistan war crimes unit receives 600 complaints

An independent policing unit set up to investigate allegations of war crimes by British military personnel during operations in Afghanistan has received around 600 complaints.

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) confirmed the claims of ill treatment in the war-torn country, between 2005 and 2013, were made by 150 individuals.

Members of the Royal Military Police are investigating as part of Operation Northmoor. Previously criminal investigations into the conduct of British armed forces personnel had largely focused on actions in Iraq.

An MoD spokesman said: "Our armed forces are rightly held to the highest standards and, whilst rare, where there are credible claims of criminal behaviour, we should investigate them.

"An independent investigation is the best way to make sure that innocent personnel are not dragged through the courts without cause - none of the Op Northmoor allegations investigated far have so far been referred to the Service Prosecution Authority."

A British serviceman facing prosecution over the death of an Iraqi teenager said the Army had "failed in its most basic duty of care" by abandoning its troops to be hounded for abuse claims.

Details of the Afghanistan investigation came as three former and current Army servicemen prepare to face court over the death of a 19-year-old in a waterway near Basra 13 years ago, despite earlier being cleared of wrongdoing.

One of the men, who spoke anonymously, said the Army "betrayed its finest people" by leaving them unsupported to be pursued through the courts.

The Iraq Historic Allegations Team (Ihat), which investigates allegations of murder and abuse by British soldiers in Iraq, has come under fire for its handling of allegations.

Writing in the Telegraph on Thursday, retired colonel Tim Collins, who led British troops in Iraq, said the existence of Ihat was "wasteful and damaging" to the armed forces.

His comments come after Prime Minister Theresa May insisted she would not allow an "industry of vexatious allegations" against British troops over claims of abuse in Iraq.

Speaking to the BBC Radio 4 Today programme, the man said: "The reality of 21st-century warfare is now that anyone in the world, even our enemies, can make any allegation against British forces no matter how absurd, and the British government and Army will stand and watch in utter indifference as it destroys their lives and careers.

"The Army has surrendered its own powers of discipline and investigation to a private company and betrayed its finest people to protect itself from scrutiny at the highest levels."

He said the Army's top brass had sacrificed junior ranks to protect themselves.

"Regardless of the allegation everyone is innocent until proven guilty and the Army has failed in its most basic duty of care," he said.

"There are veterans who have been persecuted for years by Ihat, but haven't heard a single word of support from the Army, yet alone legal or psychological support."

Concerns have been raised over the "industrial scale" of claims lodged with Ihat supported by the legal aid system.

Mrs May has insisted that action had been taken to address false claims and Ihat's work would be completed by the end of 2019, after a review of the system by former director of public prosecutions Sir David Calvert-Smith.