Unarmed Afghans were shot by UK special forces, veterans' minister says serving officers told him

Appearing at the Afghanistan Inquiry Johnny Mercer refused to reveal names of officers who told him of claims unarmed Afghans had been shot by British forces

The Veterans' Minister Johnny Mercer has said serving army officers told him unarmed Afghans were shot by UK special forces in Afghanistan.

Mr Mercer was giving evidence to the Afghanistan inquiry, which is looking at killings of unarmed civilians by UK special forces during night raids throughout the war, from mid-2010 to mid-2013.

He told the public inquiry he was “desperate” to disprove a cover-up of alleged murders by UK special forces in the war-torn nation but was “unable” to do so.

The veterans' minister is known for his opposition to false allegations against UK forces, particularly in Iraq.

But during his campaign against inaccurate claims, he says he was told by a friend and serving military officer not to dig too far.

He said they discussed there were serious allegations against special forces in Afghanistan which involved "the killing of individuals who pose no threat".

The minister said he was party to conversations about the allegations while training to be a member of the special forces, but said he considered them at the time to be “rumours”.

Mr Mercer also told the inquiry another friend of his said he had been asked to carry a "dropped weapon" - which is weapon that could be used to put next to the body of an unarmed Afghan to make it look as if they had been armed when they were killed.

Mr Mercer told the inquiry he “did not believe” the director of special forces and the chief of general staff when they told him there was no evidence of extra-judicial killings.

After his conversations with the pair, he said he told then-defence secretary Ben Wallace “something stinks”.

Mr Mercer says he was unable to disprove a cover-up of the alleged murders.

"I have been desperate for some sort of evidence to disprove these allegations because I don’t want to believe them, I don’t want to believe them from that unit.

“I have friends who were killed in operations, I have friends who were never the same person again after Afghanistan.

“And I don’t want to believe it, but at every stage I have tried to find something to disprove these allegations but I have been unable to.”

ITV News' Political Correspondent Carl Dinnen was following the inquiry.

The veterans' minister refused to give the names of his sources when asked by Oliver Glasgow KC.

"I am not prepared to burn them", he said.

Mr Glasgow put it to him that failing to provide the names of those who told him the information would “considerably hamper” the inquiry’s work.

Mr Mercer replied: “The one thing you can hold on to is your integrity and I will be doing that with these individuals.”

Lawyers representing the 11 bereaved families at the inquiry said "Johnny Mercer’s candid testimony lays bare the depth of concern that has existed for years within the army and at the highest levels of government that UK Special Forces were carrying out extra judicial killings in Afghanistan."

Have you heard our new podcast Talking Politics? Every week Tom, Robert and Anushka dig into the biggest issues dominating the political agenda…

Leigh Day partner Tessa Gregory said, “Our clients have desperately sought answers about the deaths of their loved ones for over a decade and have been met with nothing but denial and obfuscation from the Ministry of Defence.

“Today we have learned that, whilst the Secretary of State for Defence was telling the court in proceedings brought by our clients that there was nothing to see, a serving minister was raising allegations of the gravest nature.

“The bereaved families urge all those with relevant information to come forward to assist the inquiry in ascertaining the truth.”

Afghan families have accused UK special forces of conducting a “campaign of murder” against civilians, while senior officers and personnel at the MoD “sought to prevent adequate investigation”.

No charges were brought under Operation Northmoor – which was set up in 2014 to examine allegations of executions by special forces, including those of children.

A further RMP investigation, codenamed Operation Cestro, saw three soldiers referred to the Service Prosecuting Authority, but none of them were prosecuted.

The inquiry continues.

Want a quick and expert briefing on the biggest news stories? Listen to our latest podcasts to find out What You Need To Know...