Afghan unlawfully killed soldiers

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Five British soldiers shot dead by a rogue Afghan policeman were unlawfully killed, a coroner ruled today.

David Ridley, coroner for Wiltshire and Swindon, recorded the verdict following a four-day inquest in Trowbridge, Wilts.

The troops were gunned down without warning by an officer, known only as Gulbuddin, alongside whom they had been living at an Afghan National Police (ANP) checkpoint in Nad-e-Ali, Helmand Province.

Warrant Officer Class 1 Darren Chant, 40, Sergeant Matthew Telford, 37, and Guardsman Jimmy Major, 18, from the Grenadier Guards, died alongside Corporal Steven Boote, 22, and Corporal Nicholas Webster-Smith, 24, from the Royal Military Police on November 3, 2009.

The soldiers were sitting outside in the courtyard of Checkpoint Blue 25 relaxing, having returned earlier that day from a patrol.

Their killer, a regular cannabis smoker, walked up to the soldiers and without warning shot them with an automatic AK47 rifle.

The inquest heard harrowing evidence from troops who survived the massacre, describing how the Afghan had been screaming as he indiscriminately fired.

Lance Corporal Liam Culverhouse "played dead" after being shot in the face, arms and legs by Gulbuddin.

"All I could hear was gunfire, scream, gunfire, scream, gunfire, scream, and then it all stopped," L/Cpl Culverhouse said.

The soldier, who was blinded in his right eye, said: "I saw a flash of red out of my uninjured eye and realised I'd been shot.

"At first, I thought it was through a gap in the barbed wire. All I heard was a rifle going off in automatic bursts and Gulbuddin shouting something that was like a war cry."

One soldier on sentry duty held back from shooting him with a machine gun mounted on an armoured vehicle in case he injured colleagues nearby.

As the troops were off-duty, none was wearing body armour, helmets or carrying weapons.

Post-mortem examinations found all five died as a result of gunshot wounds and, with the exception of Cpl Webster-Smith, wearing body armour would not have saved them.

The Taliban claimed responsibility for the murders and some reports suggested Gulbuddin had escaped back to them, but military sources have suggested the attack was probably unconnected to the insurgents.

No one knows why Gulbuddin opened fire, killing the five and also wounding six troops and two Afghan policemen. He fled the checkpoint and has never been caught.

Some soldiers told the inquest that he might have been shot dead in a firefight immediately after the massacre.

Speaking after the inquest, the mother and girlfriend of Cpl Boote spoke of their pride in him paying the ultimate sacrifice for his country.

"We want Steven to be remembered because he was a hero and because he volunteered to fight for his country," Margaret Boote and Emma Murray said in a statement.

"He fought very hard to get a place on the team in Afghanistan and he was a highly valued and popular member of the Royal Military Police and of the Grenadier Guards Battle Group.

"Steven paid the ultimate sacrifice for his country and he was immensely proud of what he was doing.

"We are immensely proud of him and we miss him desperately but we know he was committed to the job he was doing.

"The Army, the Royal Military Police and the Royal British Legion have been a huge support for us throughout this harrowing experience.

"We are convinced that the investigation has been thorough and we have had all of our questions answered.

"The only person to blame for Steven's death is the rogue Afghan National Policeman who committed this cowardly act and we still won't know what motivated him but we would now like to be left alone to grieve in peace."

The British soldiers were at the checkpoint in the village of Shin Kalay, which was on a vital supply route, to defuse a "blood feud" between a police commander and the local Taliban.

That had caused tensions between villagers and the ANP, which had been accused of beatings, paedophilia and corruption.

The ANP were poorly paid and many regularly abused opium and cannabis and were often insubordinate and ill-disciplined.

On patrol with the British, some wore nail varnish or would hold each other's hands, the inquest heard.

An Afghan interpreter said the ANP were insolent and would tell the British in Pashto to "f*** off" or call them "f****** infidels".

The interpreter also said some of the police had close links to the Taliban.

At the time of the shootings the ANP was beset with "endemic and deep-rooted problems" and needed reform, said Brigadier James Cowan, the then senior British commander in Helmand.

Gulbuddin was nicknamed "Errol Flynn" by troops for his moustache and "Pretty Boy" because of his camp behaviour.

In the weeks before the shootings he had run-ins with British soldiers, including touching their bottoms, twanging the elastic on their shorts and grabbing one in a headlock.

He was also in a "strop" on the day of the killings, having been admonished for not wearing his police-issue hat.

On one occasion Gulbuddin had taken so much cannabis he could "barely walk straight".

But only one of the soldiers who gave evidence to the inquest said he felt unsafe working and living alongside the ANP.

Lance Corporal Peniasi Namarua, who was badly injured in the incident, said: "I didn't trust them. I can't explain why I could not trust them, it was just a feeling I could not suppress."

Brigadier Cowan said the killings were the most shocking incident during his tour.

But he said the deaths of the five troops had given him the leverage to get the Afghan authorities to reform the ANP.

He said the incident had left deep shock and shame among Afghan leaders but a "degree of good" had come as a result of the reforms.

As Regimental Sergeant Major, WO1 Chant, who was born in Walthamstow, east London, and lived in Camberley, Surrey, was the top non-commissioned officer in the 1st Battalion the Grenadier Guards.

He left a pregnant widow Nausheen Chant, and three children from a previous marriage, Connor, 16, Adam, 10, and Victoria, eight.

Sgt Telford, from Grimsby, left behind his widow Kerry, 33, and two sons, Harry, four, and Callum, nine.

Guardsman Major, who was born in Grimsby but lived in Cleethorpes, Lincs, was the youngest of those killed in the shooting.

He was due to turn 19 but never had the chance to enjoy the birthday cake and presents his family had sent out to Afghanistan.

Cpl Webster-Smith grew up in Carmarthen, west Wales, and lived in Brackley, Northamptonshire.

Cpl Boote, from Birkenhead, Merseyside, was a soldier in the Territorial Army who had volunteered to deploy to Afghanistan.

The coroner had been asked to make a ruling under Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which gives an obligation on the UK to protect life.

Mr Ridley said that for Article 2 to succeed, British forces needed to have "effective control" over Checkpoint Blue 25.

Mr Ridley said that W01 Chant did not have direct command over the Afghans as that power lay with the ANP police checkpoint commander.

"I am satisfied as part of enacting the embedment policy and partnership Sgt Major Chant did not have this power, therefore he did not have operational control of Blue 25," he said.

Speaking afterwards, the family of Corporal Webster-Smith said they remained convinced that the shooting was part of a organised Taliban attack.

In a statement, they also urged the military authorities to learn lessons from the tragedy.

They said: "As a family, we hope that lessons have been learned and that the questions raised at this inquest will be acted upon."