LONDON - Five of Britain’s elite Royal Marines have been charged with murder following an engagement with an insurgent in 2011, the Ministry of Defence said on Sunday.
Two more marines were arrested, one on Friday and one on Saturday, taking the total number of arrests to nine, an MoD spokesman said. Four have since been released without charge.
“The Royal Military Police (RMP) has referred the case of the remaining five Royal Marines to the independent Service Prosecuting Authority (SPA),” the spokesman added.
“Following direction from the SPA these marines have now been charged with murder and they remain in custody pending court proceedings. It would be inappropriate to comment further on this ongoing investigation,” he added.
British media have reported that the marines were arrested after suspicious footage was found on a serviceman’s laptop by British police. The arrests are thought to be the first time that British servicemen have been held on suspicion of such charges during the Afghanistan conflict.
Defence Minister Philip Hammond, speaking on BBC television, stressed that the rules of engagement must be followed. “Everybody serving in theatre knows the rules of engagement, they carry cards in their uniforms with the rules on them in case they need to remind themselves,” he told the BBC.
“I can’t comment on the specifics of this case. They are not out there, this is something that happened last year. These people were back in the UK and not in Afghanistan at the moment.
“We are very determined that rules of engagement will be followed, that any abuse will be dealt with through the normal processes of service justice and that is what is happening now.”
The Royal Marines, or “green berets”, were formed in 1755 as marine infantry for the Royal Navy and have a reputation as some of the toughest military professionals in the world.
Britain still has some 9,500 troops in Afghanistan, all of whom are due to leave by the end of 2014.
Some 433 British personnel have been killed in the country since the start of the operation against the Taliban in 2001.
Meanwhile, Germany is poised to reduce significantly the number of troops it contributes to the NATO-led force in Afghanistan next year, according to a report published on Sunday in Der Spiegel newsweekly.
The current upper limit of 4,900 troops will be slashed to “comfortably under 4,000” when the German government asks parliament in January for a new mandate for the force, Spiegel said.
It said Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle and Defence Minister Thomas De Maiziere had also agreed to ask parliament for a mandate of more than the usual 12 months, so troops could be in place for elections due at the start of 2014.
The defence ministry declined to comment on the report saying the size and duration of the mandate had not yet been decided.
Germany is the third largest force under NATO’s International Security Assistance Force, behind Britain’s around 9,500 troops and the more than 90,000 US troops.
It has a maximum of 4,900 soldiers in Afghanistan but another 500 are set to be withdrawn by the end of this year before a complete pullout.
Foreign troops have now begun pulling out and all combat forces will be gone by the end of 2014, according to a withdrawal schedule agreed by the US and NATO.