Rights defenders are demanding an urgent inquiry into reported allegations that British special forces executed dozens of detainees and unarmed men in suspicious circumstances during anti-insurgency operations in Afghanistan a decade ago.
A BBC investigation, citing newly obtained military documents, alleged Tuesday that 54 people were unlawfully killed in the southern Afghan province of Helmand by a single unit of the Special Air Service (SAS), a special forces unit of the British army.
The broadcaster said its four-year inquiry also found “evidence suggesting the former head of the special forces failed to pass on evidence to a murder inquiry.”
The alleged war crimes reportedly occurred between 2010 and 2011 when British troops were still fighting Taliban insurgents alongside allies in the South Asian nation.
Unarmed Afghans were routinely shot to death “in cold blood” by SAS troops during nighttime raids, and weapons were planted on them to justify the crimes, the report said.
In a statement, Amnesty International called for an “effective and transparent” investigation into the allegations made against U.K. special forces.
Amnesty’s South Asia researcher, Zaman Sultani, said the BBC findings are “horrifying and clearly depict an alarming level of impunity and lack of accountability of U.K. troops who operated in Afghanistan.”
“The suggestion that there’s been a high-level cover-up compounds the moral outrage and suggests an unwillingness on the part of the U.K. to pursue independent and effective investigations into the allegations.”
In response to the report, Shaharzad Akbar, former head of the now-defunct Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), denounced what she said was a “culture of impunity and lack of accountability” in her country for decades.
“There was little transparency & no accountability for abuses by the international forces,” Akbar tweeted. “It is still not late for transparency, accountability & reparations,” she said.
The British Ministry of Defense said the report “jumps to unjustified conclusions from allegations that have already been fully investigated.” It said in a statement that two independent investigations have looked into the conduct of British forces in Afghanistan and that neither found sufficient evidence to prosecute.
“Insinuating otherwise is irresponsible, incorrect, and puts our brave Armed Forces personnel at risk both in the field and reputationally,” the ministry said, adding it stands open to considering any new evidence.
British forces were deployed to Afghanistan as part of a NATO-led international coalition after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States that Washington said were plotted in Afghanistan by al-Qaida terrorists who were harbored by the then-Taliban government.
The BBC investigation focused on one six-month deployment by an SAS squadron that operated in Helmand from late 2010. It said the unit carried out “kill or capture” raids to detain Taliban commanders and disrupt bomb-making networks.
Opposition lawmaker John Healey described the allegations as “deeply disturbing,” and urged Defense Secretary Ben Wallace to explain to parliament what action he would take to verify the claims.
The final British forces and their NATO allies withdrew from Afghanistan last August, days before the Taliban insurgents retook control of the country.
The Taliban captured Kabul on August 15 and now governs Afghanistan.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.