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Australian Story: Former commando 'can't atone' for special forces raid which killed Afghan children

ABC News ABC News 23/05/2016 Helen Grasswill and Sharon Davis

Dave's story raises many serious questions yet to be addressed by the ADF. © Helen Grasswill/Australian Story Dave's story raises many serious questions yet to be addressed by the ADF. A soldier at the centre of one of Australia's most controversial and secret military cases has spoken publicly for the first time about a horrific commando night raid in which five Afghan children were killed.

Identifying himself as Dave, the former lance corporal is one of two reservists from the Army's elite 1st Commando Regiment who was charged with manslaughter over the children's deaths in the 2009 raid of a family compound.

"From the moment I realised there were dead children, I was horrified, numb, just struggling to grasp," Dave told Australian Story.

"When you realise you've killed children, devastating doesn't even begin to describe it, and I feel like I can't fix it and I can't atone for it. I can't do anything to undo the damage that was done."

The manslaughter case sent shockwaves through the Australian Defence Force (ADF) and was the subject of a sustained public outcry, with accusations of "armchair" ignorance of combat conditions.

An ugly vilification campaign was mounted against the former director of military prosecutions, Brigadier Lyn McDade, who had laid the charges.

The case against the men was dismissed prior to a court martial, but Dave and other members of the regiment remain angry that the ADF still has not formally exonerated him or the other soldier, a sergeant, who was charged.

Debate about the case was reignited last week with the release of a ministerial memorandum obtained by Australian Story under Freedom of Information legislation.

Raid shrouded in secrecy

The incident has remained shrouded in secrecy for seven years.

The ADF has never given a full public account of the events of that night.

Now Dave — who at the request of his family has not divulged his surname — and other soldiers directly involved in the action, have given Australian Story a detailed description of the circumstances leading up to the raid, what happened on the night and its tragic aftermath.

Australian Story also raises many serious questions yet to be addressed by the ADF. It is still not clear whether the raid was properly authorised or if the intelligence the soldiers were acting on was incorrect and led them to the wrong compound.

Many of the documents applied for by Australian Story have been classified as SECRET: AUSTEO (Australian Eyes Only) and others have been suppressed by court order. Those obtained have been heavily redacted.

Intelligence sometimes 'like throwing a dart at a map'

The 1st Commando Regiment was sent to Afghanistan in November 2008 on a four-month tour of duty.

They were operating as a strike force, primarily targeting the Taliban leadership on "kill or capture" missions.

A member of the regiment, Corporal Geoff Evans, said all missions were intelligence-driven and had to be approved by senior army ranks, but the information provided was not always reliable.

"The intelligence we received was of varying quality. Sometimes it was very, very good, and other times it felt like they were throwing a dart at a map," he told Australian Story.

Another commando, identified as Corporal W, said: "Quite often we'd go into a compound and it would be what we'd call a dry hole. There'd be nothing there, we'd go in, do our search and then leave. Other times we would go in, capture a Taliban leader, for example, so it varied."

Raiding party redirected

On the night of February 12, 2009, a force of over 20 people, including a number of Afghan National Army personnel and Afghan interpreters, headed towards the tiny village of Sorkh Morghab in Uruzgan Province.

They were targeting a Taliban leader.

As directed, they first entered a family compound, but found that the occupants had no Taliban influence or links. The information they had been given was false.

They then received further orders from a lieutenant colonel in Kandahar to proceed to a nearby compound.

Details of why these orders were given and the intelligence on which they were based remain unknown.

As the team cleared the second compound, they found a family including an armed man and relocated them to a courtyard.

'It's a miracle I wasn't killed'

One of the commandos, Corporal W, told Australian Story that when he looked through the window of another room, he saw a man pointing an AK-47 rifle at a door that soldiers were about to enter.

"I shot him," Corporal W said.

"I believe that if I didn't engage him at that time [the soldiers] would have made entry into that door and he would have shot and killed at least one, maybe two of them."

According to Corporal W, the man then fired at him "probably half a mag(azine) from one-and-a-half metres away".

"It's a miracle I wasn't killed. Bullets whizzed past my ears and shoulders and glass and wall fragments struck me in the face," he said.

Corporal W hit the ground and other soldiers thought he was dead.

Soldiers say they warned gunman to stop firing

According to the Australian soldiers, members of the Afghan National Army, interpreters and some of their own unit were calling out to the armed man to cease fire throughout the altercation.

He continued to fire and Sergeant J — who was also later charged with manslaughter — directed Dave to throw a grenade into the room.

After it detonated, Dave said there was a brief pause in the fire coming from the room and then it continued "at a rapid and sustained rate, hence us believing that there was more than one insurgent in that room".

"It was coming out through the windows and it was coming out through the walls, around eight or 10 centimetres from my head and chest," he said.

The soldiers told Australian Story that the design of the compound meant that the man shooting at them had full coverage of the only exit and that they had no option but to kill him in order to save their own lives.

Sergeant J directed Dave to throw a second grenade, at which point the firing from the automatic AK-47 rifle ceased.

It was not until the dust from this grenade settled and the room was entered that Dave and other soldiers say they realised there were women and children in the room.

Three children were dead and several badly injured. Two babies who were evacuated for medical treatment did not survive, taking the death toll to five children.

Family says gunman not a Taliban fighter

The man who had been shooting at them, Amrullah Kahn, also died after medical evacuation.

His surviving family said he was a peasant farmer and that neither he nor they were affiliated with the Taliban.

A family spokesman, Farid Popal, who lives in Perth, told Australian Story that the Kahn family wanted justice for their devastating loss.

"The family want answers as to why their father and their children and other members of the family were attacked, and why did they die?" he said.

Mr Popal said that as far as he was aware, the family had never received an explanation nor an apology from the ADF.

Watch 'Australian Story: Into The Fog Of War' at 8:00pm tonight on ABC TV.

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