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Families of murdered Red Caps devastated by collapse of trial

Relatives of six British soldiers murdered in Iraq by an armed mob spoke of their "devastation" yesterday after the only two men charged over the killings were acquitted by a court in Baghdad.

John Miller, whose 21-year-old son Simon was one of the Royal Military policemen who died when a police station in Majr al-Kabir was attacked in June 2003, criticised the British Government's handling of the case, claiming that officials had failed to keep families informed about developments.

Hamza Hateer and Mussa Ismael al Fartusi were due to stand trial for the murders at the central criminal court in Baghdad, but the case was dropped yesterday after a two-hour hearing, with the presiding judge, Justice Baleagh Hamdi Hikma, citing a lack of evidence.

The Red Caps had been on a routine operation to train local police when they were attacked by a crowd of around 500 three months after the US-led invasion of Iraq. They had been playing football with the Iraqi policemen when the crowd, instigated by a small group of ringleaders, turned on them.

Feelings had been running high locally over a number of deaths due to the action of UK forces. An inquest in March 2006 heard that some of the men's bodies were found riddled with bullets, while others had marks that suggested they had been dragged, tied up or beaten with rifles.

The six who died were L/Cpl Benjamin Hyde, of Northallerton, North Yorkshire; Sgt Simon Hamilton-Jewell, 41, from Chessington, Surrey; Cpl Russell Aston, 30 from Swadlincote, Derbyshire; Cpl Paul Long, 24, from Tyne and Wear; L/Cpl Tom Keys, 20, from Bala, North Wales; and Cpl Simon Miller, 21, from Tyne and Wear.

The coroner, Nicholas Gardiner, concluded in 2006 that the men were unlawfully killed. He said that they had been given antiquated radios and inadequate ammunition, but that better communications would not have saved their lives.

Three judges in Baghdad yesterday questioned nine people, mostly Iraqi police officers, who all maintained that they had not seen the killings and that inquiries during the past seven years had failed to unearth any witnesses.

Justice Hikma decided that there was no credible evidence that Mr Hateer and Mr Fartusi were responsible for the murders, but added that one of the defendants may face charges for allegedly stealing the rifle of a dead soldier.

Eight suspects were initially arrested in connection with the deaths, six of whom were freed without charge.

The families of the Red Caps have campaigned for an independent inquiry into the deaths, which they maintained were partly caused by Army negligence.

They were initially told by the British Government that they would be allowed access to the trial in Baghdad, but this was withdrawn for "security reasons". They were instead offered email updates via the British embassy in Baghdad and the Ministry of Defence.

John Miller, from Washington, Tyne and Wear, criticised the decision to deny the families access to the court: "I don't understand how this can happen. This is exactly why we wanted to be at the trial, we needed to be there. We were denied that, we were denied everything."

The 59-year-old also attacked the British Government over its handling of the case and its alleged failure to keep relatives informed, claiming that he had heard "nothing" from the British authorities yesterday, despite the families being told they would be updated by email: "My son was let down so badly in life, now he has been let down so badly in death," he said. "I'm devastated, I just can't believe it."

John Hyde, the father of L/Cpl Hyde, told Sky News: "Quite honestly these people just haven't been in court long enough to be able to prove their innocence, which obviously asks the question why did the judge decide to bring it to court then dismiss it so quickly?"

A spokeswoman for the Ministry of Defence said: "Seven further arrest warrants remain outstanding and are being actively pursued by the Iraqi authorities. We will continue to do all we can to press for the prosecution of those responsible."