British soldiers are under investigation over the theft of a weapons cache in Iraql. The Ministry of Defence launched an inquiry after troops attempted to smuggle the weapons back to Britain.
The discovery of the weapons, stolen from an Iraqi police station and believed to be one of the largest hauls uncovered, has fuelled growing concerns that weapons confiscated by British troops in Iraq and Afghanistan are being brought back illegally to the UK and could get into the hands of criminals.
Fears that weapons from war zones could inflame Britain's growing gun crime problems have prompted high-level talks between the Home Office and the Ministry of Defence. Customs and MoD police have stepped up inspections of military bases and convoys, with RAF bases and military ports being targeted as part of a fresh attempt by the Government to restrict the supply of guns.
Troops are permitted to bring back deactivated weapons as trophies for regimental museums and messes but not as individual mementoes.
Despite this, searches at UK bases have already uncovered live weapons hidden in the petrol tanks of military vehicles and even in the gun barrels of tanks and artillery pieces. Live ammunition including shells and mortar rounds has also been confiscated.
The new security measures are part of a package of policies implemented by a ministerial task force to tackle the problem of gangs and gun crime set up after the murder of 11-year-old Rhys Jones in Liverpool in August. The Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, and Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, are being personally briefed on a weekly basis by Deputy Chief Constable Jon Murphy, the Association of Chief Police Officers' serious and organised crime co-ordinator, who heads the task force.
"There have been recent incidents where weapons have been stolen by military personnel in Iraq that have left Iraq, and we know that for a fact... unfortunately some of those weapons do leak back into the criminal market," said Mr Murphy.
The number of guns involved in the latest investigation is understood to run into double figures, with several soldiers suspected of involvement. Mr Murphy admitted that it is a "live investigation with the MoD" which could result in courts martial.
He warns that while one shipment of guns has been stopped, others may have got through. "It is generally accepted that some military weapons are being brought back to Britain and ending up in the hands of criminals," he said. "We are not really clear what the scale of that problem is and we are trying to get to the bottom of that by working with the Ministry of Defence. We've had meetings with them to try to get a handle on how big a problem it is."
There has long been a culture of soldiers wanting to bring back personal souvenirs from war zones, which the MoD allows. But a worrying trend has developed in recent years with some military personnel seeking to profit from the thousands of pounds that a smuggled military weapon can fetch on the black market. Soldiers are even resorting to hiding weapons in the barrels of tanks, oil drums, or underneath vehicles, according to senior customs officials.
"You have to remember that these guys have lived with their guns for six months in theatre, and these things are bound to happen," a MoD spokesman said. The RAF carried out routine searches of equipment and personnel as they come in, he added. "Everyone's equipment at the port of embarkation is searched in the same way security at normal airports would take place. There is no evidence of illegal weapons being brought out through RAF air bases. We have no evidence that illegal weapons have been imported and none has been found during searches... but I have to accept that we have had a number of cases where soldiers have been caught in possession of firearms."
Two soldiers who had smuggled stolen guns out of Iraq were jailed at a court martial last month. Prosecution evidence said the soldiers, from The Yorkshire Regiment, were part of a nine-man smuggling ring that served in Basra between October 2004 and April 2005. The weapons were discovered after some were sold on to fellow soldiers.
In September, Private Christopher Trussler, of the Princess of Wales's Royal Regiment, was jailed for three years after he admitted stealing and possessing British Army 9mm ammunition which he attempted to sell to an undercover police officer. The court heard that Trussler also told the officer he could obtain an AK-47 but there was a wait for the weapon to be obtained and reactivated. The trial judge criticised military accounting procedures after hearing the ammunition came from a live firing exercise in Northern Ireland and was not returned.
In 2005 a Royal Marine from Lanarkshire, Scotland, was jailed for two years in December 2005 after bringing a captured Kalashnikov AK47 assault rifle back from Iraq. A rocket-propelled grenade launcher, rifles and even a 60mm mortar are among the weaponry that has been brought back to Britain since the start of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
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