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£5m investigation into war crimes to be disbanded

A specialist unit of police and historians investigating suspected war criminals in Britain is to be disbanded in March after spending more than £5m in three years.

Legal authorities in Scotland have ruled out any prosecutions and in England a final decision is likely to be taken in the next three months on a shortlist of seven suspects where police believe there is a case worth taking to court. The files have been sent to the Crown Prosecution Service. No charges have yet resulted from the four years of investigations around the world into the records of suspected war criminals..

Members of the Scotland Yard police unit of nine detectives, two historians, two constables and five civilian support staff have visited Russia, the Balkans, the Baltic states, Ukraine, Latvia, Germany, Poland, Israel, the United States, Canada and SouthAfrica during the investigation. More than 300 cases were reviewed, with more than 250 people cleared. Many suspects have died in the past five years. Of those who have been investigated only one was under 65.

If any prosecutions are recommended they can come to court more quickly than a normal prosecution for murder or manslaughter.

The 1991 War Crimes legislation provides for the committal stage of any prosecution to be missed out. The investigating authorities have been careful to keep the identities of the suspects secret, for fear of giving grounds for protracted legal argumentsthat trials had been prejudiced.

The question of prosecuting war criminals in Britain was never an issue in the immediate post-war years when the enemy was seen as Communism and the overriding need was to reconstruct the economy. Britain realised that it might be harbouring war criminals only in 1986, when a list of 17 suspects was handed to Douglas Hurd, then Home Secretary. The list grew to more than 100, of whom 30 were still under active investigation by Scotland Yard a year ago.Two Commonwealth countries, Canada and Australia, setup similar units, but there have been no convictions.