By Henry Chu, Los Angeles Times –
LONDON — Five Royal Marines have been charged with murder in an allegedly unlawful death in Afghanistan last year, defense officials said Sunday, marking what is believed to be the first time that the British military has taken such a step since the conflict began more than a decade ago.
Authorities have disclosed few details of the incident in question, saying only that no civilian was involved and that the death occurred after “an engagement with an insurgent.”
The five Royal Marines are being held in Britain as prosecutors pursue a potential court martial, officials said. Four other service members who were arrested have been released without charge pending further investigation.
British media outlets reported that the arrests stemmed from video footage found on the laptop of one of the suspects by civilian police in Britain. But the exact nature of the images remains unclear.
The marines reportedly belonged to the 3 Commando Brigade, which was deployed last year in Helmand province in southern Afghanistan, an area of intense fighting. British media said that seven members of the brigade were killed in action in Afghanistan during a six-month stretch in 2010.
Defense Secretary Philip Hammond pledged that any abuse would “be dealt with through the normal processes” of military justice.
“Everybody serving in theater knows the rules of engagement. They carry cards in their uniforms with the rules on them in case they should need to remind themselves,” Hammond told the BBC on Sunday.
The murder charges come as Britain prepares to begin withdrawing its combat force in Afghanistan by the end of 2014. Hammond said thousands of troops would be pulled out next year.
Britain’s deployment of about 9,000 troops in the Central Asian country is second in size only to the United States. More than 400 British service personnel have been killed in the conflict.
The decision not to disclose details surrounding the murder probe is likely to have been motivated in part by concerns over a possible public backlash in Afghanistan and the risk that the Taliban would use the incident for propaganda purposes.