British soldiers charged over killing of Albanians

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The Independent Online

Three British paratroopers are to be court-martialled over the killing of two armed Albanians in Kosovo last year.

Three British paratroopers are to be court-martialled over the killing of two armed Albanians in Kosovo last year.

The decision to court-martial the three 1st Battalion of the Parachute Regiment soldiers, who claim they acted in self-defence, has outraged soldiers and the Opposition. The shadow Defence Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, described it as "an utterly disgraceful move". He said: "The proceedings should be stopped, and an apology made to these men who are heroes, not villains."

The legal proceedings will also be highly embarrassing to the Government, which has been promoting the peace-keeping role of the Army abroad.

The investigation into the deaths of Fahri Bici, aged 20, and Avni Dudi, 24, members of the Kosovo Liberation Army, had been a closely guardedsecret within the Ministry of Defence. Senior military personnel say they are aware of the political sensitivity of the matter. The MoD would confirm only that charges had been laid and that they could involve murder or manslaughter.

The Independent has learnt that a pre-trial hearing has already been held and a full court martial is due to take place soon.

Although the inquiry into the killings was carried out by the MoD, the final decision to charge the men involved local prosecutors in the Kosovan capital, Pristina, appointed by the United Nations.

The three soldiers have been under investigation by the MoD's special investigation branch over the shootings in Pristinaon 3 July 1999, when ethnic Albanians celebrated their "independence day". There has been little reaction or demand for retribution by Albanians in Kosovo.

There has been widespread publicity about the case of another Nato peace-keeper charged over a killing in Kosovo - the US Army sergeant Frank J Ronghi, who was convicted of the rape and murder of an 11-year-old Kosovan girl. The incident led to the US Army ordering a full investigation into the role of American forces in Kosovo.

The rules of engagement in Kosovo for British soldiers are broadly similar to Northern Ireland. K-For soldiers carry a green card authorising them to kill in self-defence, but only after a verbal warning.