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No inquiry into SAS claims: English

NZ Newswire logoNZ Newswire 3/04/2017

There is no basis for an independent inquiry into allegations New Zealand Defence Force members were involved in the deaths of civilians in Afghanistan in 2010, Prime Minister Bill English says.

Defence Force chief, Lieutenant General Tim Keating, briefed Mr English and Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee on Monday morning, telling them Coalition forces acted within the laws of engagement during Operation Burnham.

Claims civilians died at the hands of SAS forces during the operation were made by war correspondent Jon Stephenson and investigative reporter Nicky Hager in their book Hit and Run, released two weeks ago.

Mr English said the book had potentially damaged the reputation of New Zealand's elite troops, but after being briefed and watching video footage of the operation he was proud of the work they had done.

He refused to go into detail about what the classified footage showed, only revealing during his regular post cabinet press conference on Monday that it was taken from helicopter gunships.

Mr English also wouldn't reveal how much of the video he saw, only that it covered the potential points of contention.

But he said it backed up statements Lt-Gen Keating made about the operation last week, and seeing the video gave him confidence in the NZDF's position on the operation.

He said there was no room for doubt about the basic facts of what happened, and that Lt-Gen Keating was independent in his investigation and presentation of the facts.

He also remains satisfied there is no evidence of civilian casualties.

The book claims six civilians were killed - two by SAS ground forces and four by helicopter gunship fire.

The NZDF says it's possible civilians were killed when a gun on one of the helicopter misfired and rounds fell short, hitting a building where known insurgents and possibly civilians were.

"I trust the facts as they are presented, presented on the video, presented through structures the Defence Force have," Mr English said.

"The CDF [chief of Defence Force] is independent. He wasn't involved in the operation."

Mr English said he was impressed by the restraint and care shown by coalition forces in the footage.

"The video confirms that the troops followed the rules of engagement. There was a degree of care that was impressive," he said.

But inquiries are still considering questions the book raised about the mistreatment of a prisoner, who the authors claim was handed over to Afghan forces knowing he could be tortured.

"We are still trying to establish exactly what happened," Mr English said.

He said if anyone came forward with information to dispute the position the government has taken, the Defence Force would be obliged to investigate, and he would expect that information to be shared with him.

But he denied calling for anyone with evidence to come forward was a challenge to the authors or their sources.

Mr Hager said he was deeply disappointed by the decision not to hold an inquiry.

"When the book came out, Jon Stephenson and I emphasised that Bill English had no responsibility for the deeds done in 2010 and so was in a good position to offer aid to the Afghan villagers and launch a proper inquiry," he said.

"But he has joined the people trying to hide and dodge over what happened - I believe this decision is the result of military pressure on the government."

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