3 Australian commandos cleared of 6 Afghan deaths

AP News
Posted: Aug 30, 2011 4:31 AM
3 Australian commandos cleared of 6 Afghan deaths

All charges have been dropped against three commandos who faced Australian courts-martial over the deaths of five children and an adult during a night raid on a home in Afghanistan in 2009, officials said Tuesday.

The trio, whose names have not been made public, were the first Australian soldiers to ever be charged with manslaughter over civilian deaths in battle. The deaths came when the commandos stormed the home in Uruzgan province with gunfire and a grenade after coming under fire from the compound.

The military decision to prosecute provoked a public backlash, with more than 20,000 Australians signing a petition for the charges to be dropped.

Defense Minister Stephen Smith said Tuesday he would ask Director of Military Prosecutions Brig. Lyn McDade for a report on why she decided to lay the charges and why the cases had failed.

"This has been the first occasion where three of our soldiers have been charged effectively with manslaughter during actual combat," Smith told Sky television.

"I just want now, while the dust is settled, for us to have the opportunity for a comprehensive assessment," he said.

Smith said he would also seek advice on the case from senior defense bureaucrats and commanders.

McDade came under withering criticism from the public and military ranks after announcing in September last year that the soldiers faced multiple charges including manslaughter, dangerous conduct and failing to comply with a lawful general order. Two of the soldiers blamed an insurgent for the deaths.

Smith said he continued to have confidence in McDade.

Australian Defense Force Chief Lt. Gen. David Hurley said the military had ensured through the prosecutions that the three "received a fair trial and that the integrity of the military legal process was preserved."

"It is important that all incidents leading to a civilian casualty are investigated thoroughly, comprehensively and transparently," Hurley said in a statement.

Australian public support for the Afghan war has waned, with the Australian death toll from the decade-old conflict rising to 29 last week.

Australia has 1,550 troops in Afghanistan, the largest force provided by any country outside NATO.