Killings were unprovoked murder, insists MoD

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The killings of six British soldiers in Iraq were described by senior officers yesterday as "unprovoked murders" by a frenzied mob. But local people claimed the confrontation was started by the Royal Military Police (RMP) firing on a demonstration.

Iraqi civilians also insisted that the deaths and an ambush of a patrol of paratroops were provoked by aggressive weapons searches by British troops. They claimed that women and children were threatened and Muslim religious sensibilities offended.

In an atmosphere of rising tension, British military authorities were reported to have given civilian leaders until tomorrow afternoon to hand over those responsible for the attacks. The Ministry of Defence (MoD) maintained later that this had been a "misunderstanding" and no ultimatums had been issued.

Lieutenant-Colonel Ronnie McCourt, an Army spokesman in Basra, said the killing of the RMPs "was unprovoked, it was murder". But Abbas Faddhel, an Iraqi policeman, said British soldiers shot dead four civilians during a protest against heavy-handed British tactics during a weapons sweep.

Captain Adam Marchant-Wincott, another spokesman, said he could not say whether British forces had fired at demonstrators but stressed they would have done so only if their lives had been threatened. Senior defence sources in London confirmed yesterday that up to 80 Iraqis were killed in prolonged and sustained firefights when the patrol from the 1st Battalion, the Para-chute Regiment, was attacked.

The six members of the RMP were involved in a confrontation with a crowd at Majar al-Kabir when shooting broke out. According to witnesses one of the soldiers was killed almost immediately, and another as he fought his way back to the police station. The four remaining were killed after they took refuge in a room.

In the Commons, the Prime Minister paid tribute to the six dead men, from 156 Provost Company, based in Colchester, which is attached to 16 Air Assault Brigade, adding that they were doing an "extraordinary and heroic job".

The MoD named the dead soldiers as Sergeant Simon Alexander Hamilton-Jewell, 41, from Chessington, Surrey, Corporal Russell Aston, 30, from Swadlincote, Derbyshire, Corporal Paul Graham Long, 24, from Colchester, Corporal Simon Miller, 21, from Tyne and Wear, Lance Corporal Benjamin John McGowan Hyde, 23, from Northallerton, North Yorkshire and Lance Corporal Thomas Richard Keys, 20, from Llanuwchllyn, near Bala, north Wales.

Geoff Hoon, the Secretary of State for Defence, said thousands more British troops could be sent to Iraq but a decision depended on the results of an urgent review of numbers and tactics. Asked whether up to 5,000 more troops might be sent, Mr Hoon added: "It is certainly not beyond the bounds of possibility."

The MoD said there were no plans to send large-scale reinforcements to Iraq unless the situation drastically degenerated. MoD officials added that Army investigators would not know for days why and how the six RMPs were killed.

"We are aware of the differing reports and we are trying to find all these witnesses," a spokesman said. "We are having to build a picture of what happened and the whole sequence of events.

"People are working very hard on this and hopefully it will become clearer but that could take a few days."

Hopes that the United Nations might consider sending an international force to Iraq to assist with security were dashed yesterday by the UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, who ruled out any prospect of dispatching "blue helmets" in the near future, saying he doubted that the UN had the capacity needed to do the job.

Speaking in London after meetings with Tony Blair and the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, Mr Annan said that the latest UN Security Council resolution, 1483, "leaves the responsibility for security and promoting the welfare of the Iraqi people with the occupying powers". He said that a new UN resolution would be needed for that to change.

Ambushed: The six British victims at Amara

Corporal Russell Aston

Cpl Aston's wife said recently that when there was news of the war she thought: "Oh, what am I going to hear now." On Tuesday, the news was the worst Anna Aston could have imagined. Cpl Aston, from near Swadlincote, Derbyshire, was 30 and the father of a 17-month-old girl. His wife described her husband, a physical training instructor, as a professional and not the type to complain when morale was low. Cpl Aston joined the Army in 1993 and served with the Grenadier Guards before joining 156 Provost Company in 2001.

Lance Corporal Benjamin McGowan Hyde

Aged 23, he lived in Northallerton, North Yorkshire, with his taxi driver father, John, and mother, Sandra. He was on his first operational tour. The former pupil at Allertonshire School and Northallerton College joined the Army in June 2001. His father said: "Ben was a charismatic person who lightened the mood when he walked into a room. All he wanted was to become a military policeman. It was his life, so he gave his life doing the job he loved most. He was also a loving son who will be sorely missed."

Corporal Simon Miller

Aged 21, Cpl Miller was described as a "typical lad" by schoolfriends, an avid sportsman and former "ladies' man" who liked larking around but had settled down and was engaged. He left Usworth Comprehensive at 16 to become a mechanic and lived with his parents, John and Marilyn, in Washington, Tyne and Wear. He had an older brother, John, 25. Yesterday his friend Paul Latimer, 21, said: "He was into most sports. He was loving it in the Army and enjoying his life. I can't believe he has gone."

Corporal Paul Long

Cpl Long was 24 and on his first operational deployment. Married and from Colchester, he joined the Army in April 1999 and was posted to 156 Provost Company in March 2000. A member of the Parachute Provost Platoon, he was a qualified radio operator. Cpl Long had a baby son. A friend said yesterday that his wife, Gemma, was "absolutely devastated" by his death. He added: "Paul was an extremely professional soldier and policeman. He loved his job and was well liked by everyone he worked with."

Lance Corporal Tom Keys

His parents described their 20-year-old son as a "clean-living lad" who was football-mad and enjoyed running on the mountains around his home near Bala in north Wales. His father, Reg, 52, a retired paramedic training officer, said L/Cpl Keys had loved the Army and joined as a cadet at 16 from Arden Comprehensive in Solihull. He served in Jamaica and helped to release hostages in Sierra Leone. His mother, Sally, 49, a former ward sister, said he had hoped to be home by 12 July, having been in the Gulf since February. She added: "We're so proud of everything he had achieved. We're in shock now."

Sergeant Simon Hamilton-Jewell

Known as HJ to his friends, the 41-year-old from Chessington, Surrey, was a career soldier. His family said he had stayed with his comrades despite being offered the chance to escape from the police station. He joined the Army in August 1988, and 156 Provost Company in March 2002. He had served in Germany, Northern Ireland, Sarajevo, Sudan, Kenya, Poland and France. His brother said: "Some people say the British opened fire first on the Iraqis, but my brother would have never done that."