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Afghan casualties: number of UK payouts 'treble'

By Nick Paton Walsh

Updated on 24 June 2010

Exclusive: Payments to relatives of civilians killed in error by British forces in Afghanistan have trebled in the past year according to military records obtained by Channel 4 News. The stark figures which shed light on 105 Afghan civilian deaths in the past year are revealed in records of compensation payouts by the Ministry of Defence.

British forces (Credit: Getty)

It is supposed to be the number one priority for International Security and Assistance Force (ISAF) troops in Afghanistan; the protection and security of the local population.

But the figures released to Channel 4 News under the freedom of information act show that the MoD paid compensation to relatives of at least 105 Afghan civilians killed by British forces in error last year.

Nick Paton Walsh's report contains images that some viewers may find disturbing.

That was three times the number compensated in 2008. 

A month long investigation also highlighted two previously unreported separate incidents in which as many as eight and nine civilians were killed, in error, by British troops.

In the incidents, in December and November 2009, a British rocket hit a group of Afghan men in a field. The dead, in both cases, were mostly members of the same family.

The deaths and two incidents - until now unreported and not discussed by the Ministry of Defence – appear to highlight the difficulty for British forces to adapt Nato guidelines issued last year that were designed to drastically cut the number of civilians killed in error.

General Stanley McChrystal, the former American commander of Nato in Afghanistan, highlighted civilian deaths as a key reason why Afghans joined the insurgency and why Nato risked losing the nine year war.

British troops accuse the Taliban of often choosing to engage them in civilian areas, making the deaths of ordinary Afghans an unavoidable part of fighting the insurgency.

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Compensation payouts are made by the British to Afghan civilians after incidents in which relatives were killed or injured, or their property damaged during operations against the insurgency.

While the British army is clear when it makes a payment that it does not mean they are legally liable, it is to many the clearest indication of the number of incidents in which they accept some level of blame for civilian deaths.

The numbers are not published openly, but the volume of both claims made and payouts has rocketed in the past year.

In 2008, there were only 33 payouts for deaths, compared to at least 105 payouts in 2009.

230 claims were made in 2009, many of which were refused, a steep rise from the 151 that were made in 2008. The figures are not precise as the documents often do not offer details about the incidents or say exactly how many people died.

Afghan claims and payouts (Source: Freedom of Information request to MoD)
2009 - 105 compensation payouts to relatives of dead civilians
2008 - 33 compensation payouts

2009 - 230 total number of claims (including those refused)
2008 - 151 total number of claims

Missile attack
Eight people were killed on 28 December 2009, four of them relatives of Sufi Abdullah from Babaji, Helmand.

He and his two sons and two brothers were sat by a river, he said, on a quiet afternoon when a rocket struck.

"I got 50 or 60 metres and then suddenly I heard the sound of a blast", he told Channel 4 News from the safety of Kabul.

"When I turned I saw that my son and brother were lying on the ground, unconscious and covered in blood. One of my sons had injuries on his head, legs and hand, and I had to push him on a cart to hospital."

Sufi Abdullah produced documents from the British army in which they consented to paying him in February a total of 1.44 million Afghanis - about $32,000 (£23,300) - in compensation following the four deaths.

Holding four passport photographs of his dead sons and brothers, he said such deaths boosted the insurgency: "Most of the fighters are fighting not for ideology but because their family members have been killed."

The Ministry of Defence said UK troops, who had been shot at the previous day, believed they had identified a team of insurgents who were laying an IED (improvised explosive device) in the area. A missile was fired, but later it emerged through evidence and their investigation that civilians were hit.

The MoD said eight civilians were killed (one of whom died later of his wounds), and that they had compensated each of the deaths with $8,000 (£5,350) payments. It said troops had noticed insurgents evacuating people from the area, and believed insurgents were also among the injured or dead, although could not say how many. An investigation found British troops had acted within the rules of engagement.

Video film
Yet Sufi Abdullah's experience is not isolated. In another incident a month earlier, a British rocket appears to have killed nine civilians in error in the same area.

The men who died were all members of Haji Said Gul's family who he said were harvesting a field. He said there were no insurgents in the area at that time, and showed mobile phone video of their bodies and their burial, along with the scene of their deaths.

The video had been set to music, presumably by Taliban forces eager to exploit Nato errors for propaganda purposes.

Haji Said Gul became tearful while watching the video. He said: "This is the most cruel moment of my life. Seeing the dead bodies of nine members of your family. Can you imagine that? Now at my age I have to take care of their widows."

He said he has received 208,000 Afghanis for each death - about $4,500 (£3,000), but that the money has done nothing to curb his hatred of British soldiers.

"I would not give my son for all the wealth these foreigners have. Every day they are killing innocent people. When Nato say they are killing less civilians, it is a lie. I hate them, [the foreigners], especially when I see them. I hate them every time, as I remember my family."

The Ministry of Defence said experienced UK troops had identified insurgents laying an IED and ordered a missile strike.

It added: "subsequent investigations and evidence, however, suggested that the individuals killed were engaged in farming activity rather than the laying of improvised explosive devices, as was originally thought."

A spokesman said no evidence of IED activity was later found at the site, and admitted that civilians had been killed.

MoD payments
The documents - which often do not give any details or provide rationale for the payouts - also show $875 (£584) was paid out last year to the family of a nine year old girl shot in the head.

$950 (£634) was paid for the death of a 10-year-old boy.

In one case the Ministry of Defence also paid out $300 (£200) for a lost mobile phone.

It is unclear how full a picture these figures give of the deaths caused in error by British forces, but the rise in number year on year of those paid compensation is marked.

The complainants have to navigate both the anarchy of Helmand and the bureaucracy of the British military system to get some kind of payout. It is possible there are many more - in the Taliban controlled parts of Helmand - simply too scared to approach Nato and make a complaint.

Even the victims, who seemed to broadly favour Nato's presence, have been angered by the payout system and what they argued was its erratic logic.

Shazada told us he blamed the Taliban for killing of his son and daughter and the injury of his wife's foot, in September, even though it was a British rocket that hit his compound. The Taliban were using part of his compound as a firing position as they engaged British forces.

He said the Taliban often used populated villages as cover: "We always show them the Koran and ask them please don't come to our houses, but they refuse. We tell them Nato forces are better because they don't kill women and children, but you use them as a shield."

Yet he remained angry as even though he said Nato had improved life in his village, he has so far only got a $200 payout for the deaths. The Ministry of Defence accepted the error had occurred but argued insurgents had used human shields.

'Deep regret'
The Ministry told Channel 4 News in a statement: "Any incident involving civilian casualties is a matter of deep regret, particularly when the actions of international forces may be at fault. We have strict procedures intended to minimise the risk of civilian casualties and to investigate any that occur.

"Payments are made to recognise the circumstances of each incident and to satisfy cultural and operational circumstances; they do not necessarily mean UK forces are legally liable. Collecting and verifying data on civilian casualties is extremely difficult given the nature of the conflict.

"Significant resources and effort are put into understanding properly the operational environment, including details of the civilian population who, wherever possible, are warned of impending operations.

In contrast, the insurgents often target civilians with their indiscriminate attacks and operate from densely populated areas in order to deliberately draw civilians into the battle."

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