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Confusion erodes Hit and Run's claims

NZ Newswire logoNZ Newswire 30/03/2017 Peter Wilson, Political Writer
Chief of the New Zealand Defence Force, Lieutenant General Tim Keating addresses allegations in the book 'Hit and Run' on March 27, 2017 in Wellington, New Zealand. © Hagen Hopkins/ Getty Images Chief of the New Zealand Defence Force, Lieutenant General Tim Keating addresses allegations in the book 'Hit and Run' on March 27, 2017 in Wellington, New Zealand.

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"The only thing we know for certain," said Peter Dunne, "is that something happened, somewhere, sometime. Beyond that, the rest is speculation."

He was commenting on Thursday about the allegations in the book Hit and Run, and the response by the Defence Force to those allegations.

When Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson launched their book on Tuesday of last week, there was no confusion.

The statements in the book are unequivocal: On August 22, 2010, the SAS led a raid, supported by two US helicopter gunships, on the villages of Naik and Khak Khuday Dad in Afghanistan's Tirgiran valley.

"None of the fighters were found but, by the end of the raid, 21 civilians were dead or wounded. Most were children or women, including a three-year-old girl who was killed," the book says.

It gives a detailed account of the raids, accompanied by maps and aerial photographs showing the location of the houses that were attacked, the places where civilians were killed, helicopter landing sites and the positions of SAS snipers.

There are grid references to latitude and longtitude, they present a convincing case.

It is those details which gave the Defence Force an opening to say: "None of this happened".

Its initial response was that the SAS never operated in Naik or Khak Khuday Dad.

The raid was against Tirgiran village, about two kilometres away, where nine insurgents were killed and, because a helicopter gunsight malfunctioned, it was "possible" there were civilian casualties.

The Defence Force issued its own maps, showing the positions of the villages named in the book and the village it says was the target of Operation Burnham.

The obvious inference was that if Hager and Stephenson couldn't get the location right, could they get anything right?

The authors realised they had a serious problem, and had to acknowledge that despite having published their own detailed maps, they didn't have rock solid evidence of the location of Naik and Khak Khuday Dad.

"We have the right villages but it seems the slightly wrong location," they said.

"The Defence Force has the wrong village but the right location."

They asserted this made no difference at all to the validity of the claims that 21 civilians were killed or wounded.

On Thursday the Defence Force released more maps, setting them beside those published in the book.

The Defence force maps used small white dots to pinpoint the location of the houses that were raided and the helicopter landing sites.

Other dots pinpointed the houses the book says were attacked, and their distance from Operation Burnham.

On the face of it, the Defence Force has refuted claims the villages of Naik and Khak Khuday Dad were attacked, and has discredited the book's account of civilian deaths in those villages.

But it too has a problem.

The authors, and lawyers representing the villagers, say there is no village called Tirgiran. It is the name of the valley where the operation took place.

The Defence Force maps simply have the name Tirgiran on them in the Operation Burnham area.

That gives the authors some room to move.

They're saying that surely the villagers who were attacked know the names of the places where they live - and those names are Naik and Khak Khuday Dad.

Meanwhile the clamour for an inquiry goes on, with Labour being the latest party to again demand one.

Prime Minister Bill English is in no hurry.

He's ruled out an inquiry into possible war crimes - the authors' initial demand - but not into other, unspecified, issues.

English is now waiting for a written report from the chief of the Defence Force before making up his mind.

That could take a while.

As time passes and confusion around the allegations continues, the launch day impact is fading.

Most members of the public don't have the time or inclination to delve into the claims and counter claims, they will soon lose interest.

And when English does reach a conclusion, it will be old news.

Which would suit him very well.

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