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Inquiry into Hit and Run claims unlikely

NZ Newswire logoNZ Newswire 24/03/2017 Peter Wilson, Political Writer

Prime Minister Bill English is taking an extremely cautious approach to the allegations in the book Hit and Run, written by investigative journalist Nicky Hager and war correspondent Jon Stephenson.

He hasn't ruled out an inquiry into the claims that the SAS were involved in a raid in Afghanistan in 2010 that left six civilians dead and 15 wounded, but he's clearly reluctant to order one.

What he may be looking for are solid and plausible reasons why an inquiry shouldn't be held.

So far he's explained some of those reasons, but he isn't yet prepared to go all the way.

The book sets out a compelling case, with details of the individuals alleged to have been killed and wounded in the night raid.

But this issue is ferociously complicated and an inquiry, if there is one, would be fraught with difficulty.

For a start, New Zealand soldiers weren't the only ones involved. Afghan troops and US helicopter gunships took part as well.

The NZDF was the first to react to the allegations in the book, issuing a media statement on Tuesday night.

It rested on a statement it made on April 20, 2011, which is central to any decision the government makes.

This is what the NZDF said after the book launch: "As the 2011 statement says, following the operation allegations of civilian casualties were made.

"These were investigated by a joint Afghan Ministry of Defence, Ministry of the Interior and International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) assessment team, in accordance with ISAF procedures.

"The investigation concluded that the allegations of civilian casualties were unfounded."

The NZDF then added: "The NZDF does not undertake investigations or inquiries into the actions of forces from other nations. That was the role of the joint Afghan-ISAF investigation."

Any inquiry ordered by the government, therefore, would apparently have to separate the actions of SAS soldiers from those of other nations during an intense raid, at night, on two villages, six years ago.

The authors of the book simply don't believe the report issued following the Afghan/ISAF investigation.

Nor does Amnesty International, which has published evidence that other similar investigations produced seriously flawed outcomes.

The government is accepting the report because, it says, there isn't any other substantiated account of the raid.

English's most recent comment, on Friday, was: "Some serious allegations have been made that haven't really been substantiated. The position remains the same as the Defence Force articulated a few days ago.

"We've got to be pretty careful about people making generalised statements that aren't substantiated, but just draw bits together."

And this comment as well, which could be decisive: "A statement of allegations isn't a reason to have an inquiry."

If the government doesn't accept the allegations in the book have been substantiated, then it won't hold an inquiry.

English won't make a decision until he's talked to Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee and the chief of the Defence Force, Lieutenant General Tim Keating, who are on their way back from Iraq.

If he's looking for support from them against holding an inquiry, he'll very likely get it.

Brownlee has made his views known.

"There have been several investigations, including by ISAF, and the allegations that are made simply have not been substantiated in any way whatsoever," he said.

"Mr Hager has written a book with the intention of selling it... but this time, I've got to say, he has totally missed the mark."

Lieut-Gen Keating said his staff had found nothing in the book that would require re-investigation.

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