Australia’s elite special forces (SAS) are under renewed scrutiny after serious new allegations surfaced over the weekend of executions of unarmed Afghan men during raids.
The new allegations, which are understood to be under investigation by an internal inquiry, have troubled soldiers who have spoken out about the events. They raise new questions about the chain of command within the SAS and the behaviour of Australia’s most highly trained forces.
The that three Afghan men were killed by SAS forces during a raid on the southern Afghanistan town of Darwan on 11 September 2012, in circumstances that raise questions about whether Australian troops “crossed the line.”
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Soldiers present have spoken about the incident, which the ABC says are under investigation by the headed by the New South Wales supreme court judge Major General Paul Brereton.
According to the ABC, about 50 Australian SAS forces arrived by helicopter near the town, searching for Australia’s No 1 target in – a rogue Afghan soldier named Hekmatullah.
Hekmatullah murdered three Australian soldiers – Corporal Stjepan Milosevic, Private Robert Poate and Sapper James Martin – as they played cards at a patrol base called Wahab, then fled the base.
Australian military sources described a fevered period in which special forces soldiers were sent out on mission after mission, hunting the fugitive Afghan soldier. One source told the ABC “things did get a bit heavy-handed”, while another said “things went a bit sideways there”.
According to Afghans who were rounded up in Darwan, three soldiers made them sit and began asking questions about Hekmatullah.
The soldiers said through an interpreter that somebody in the nearby village of Nawjay had seen Hekmatullah on a wanted leaflet and phoned the security forces to say Mohammad Gul’s family was sheltering the fugitive. They accused the men of being Taliban sympathisers, of sheltering Hekmatullah and of having taken him by motorbike to meet with the Taliban.
Soon afterwards, according to Sayed Hamid Khan, the soldiers made two men, Haji Nazar Gul and Yaro Mama Faqir, stand up, and took them into a room where they stored almonds. It was the last time the two of them were seen alive.
“There were almonds in the room, a noise started in the almonds. With the noise, shots were fired,” one of the Afghani witnesses interviewed by the ABC says.
The men say no one saw what happened in the almond room but later that day Yaro Mama Faqir and Haji Nazar Gul were found dead. They say the men were unarmed and under detention when they were taken into the almond room.
However, the ABC understands that at the post-mission debrief, the Australian soldiers involved reportedly said that the two men were armed, so any shootings were justified.
Another man also died that day. Ali Jan Faqir had his donkeys loaded up and when interrogated by the soldiers told them he was returning to the mountains where his house was.
Then, they say, Ali Jan Faqir was led away by the soldiers. Hours later he was dead.
The ABC could not locate any eyewitnesses to Ali Jan Faqir’s death or the events immediately preceding it but a number of accounts circulating in the village have him being kicked or thrown from a high earth bank, or wall, into a ditch.
The on a separate incident in 2009 in which an SAS regiment trooper, who was on his first mission, was pressured to execute an unarmed elderly detainee, as part of a “blooding” ritual.
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On the same mission in 2009, the Herald said, one SAS soldier referred to as Leonidis had pushed a a bound prisonor off a small cliff, severely injuring his face in the fall. As he lay there, Leonidis was part of a decision to “get him out of his misery” by machine-gunning him.
His prosthetic leg was souvenired and used as a drinking vessel at SAS headquarters in Perth, the Fairfax paper said.
The ABC said the events at Darwan are a subject of significant interest to a closed-doors inquiry currently being carried out into the conduct of Australia’s special forces in Afghanistan.
The inquiry, headed by Brereton, is expected to report before the end of the year.
The inquiry was commissioned by the then chief of army, Lieutenant General Angus Campbell, who is soon to become chief of the defence force.
The inquiry follows by conducted by academic Dr Samantha Crompvoets.
Crompvoet’s report is said to detail “unsanctioned and illegal application of violence on operations” and “a complete lack of accountability” involving Australia’s elite special forces.