Forces inquiry turns to farce in Canada

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What started as an inquiry into how a handful of low-ranking Canadian soldiers on peacekeeping duties in Somalia beat and tortured a teenage prisoner to death three years ago has turned into a farce in which all 100,000 military and civilian personnel in the Canadian Armed Forces were ordered to devote 24 hours this week to a futile search for missing documents and computer tapes.

All military planes were grounded, all weapons were downed, and all non- essential operations were suspended on orders from the Chief of Defence Staff, General Jean Boyle, after the head of a civilian inquiry reported that several crucial communications logs covering the activities of the Canadian Airborne Regiment in Somalia were missing. It also appeared that top-secret computer tapes at National Defence headquarters covering the same period had been erased.

The missing records and tapes pointed to an attempt at a high-level cover- up of the circumstances surrounding the killing of the teenager and another shooting incident during the Somalia mission in March 1993.

These events have turned into a major embarrassment for Canada, which claims to have originated the idea of United Nations peace-keeping following the Anglo-French invasion of the Suez Canal zone in 1956, and which has participated in most UN peace-keeping operations since.

But the senior officers in the Canadian Armed Forces were looking even more like the gang who couldn't shoot straight yesterday when the day spent pawing through filing cabinets produced no missing files and Canadian media had a field day with stories and pictures of military personnel involved in a treasure hunt.

Even military chaplains and a civilian barber working at defence headquarters were asked to go through their files but an exception was made for the approximately 1,000 soldiers on duty around Coralici in Bosnia.

Several computer technicians have added to the embarrassment by casting doubt on the theory about erasures, claiming the apparent gaps might have been caused by faulty programming. "If silly Keystone Cops type of things like this are going to carry on, it's time we got an investigation that brings out the truth," said one critic yesterday.

General Boyle's house-cleaning order has been widely seen as an effort at damage control, to divert attention from accusations that he and other senior officers knew about the cover-up and had approved of it.

A corporal and two privates have already been convicted in military court of offences connected with the torture and beating to death of the teenager. But the judicial inquiry is looking into the broader question of the training and preparation of the Airborne regiment for the Somalia assignment, given that it was known to have discipline problems and also into what happened at defence headquarters when senior officers first learned of the torture death and another shooting.

A colonel who is now facing court-martial for destroying or altering some of the relevant documents has said his seniors, including General Boyle, knew of the attempted cover-up and approved.