Police in London have opened an investigation into war crimes allegedly committed by British mercenaries in Sri Lanka during the 1980s, it has emerged today.
The Foreign Office has told the United Nations Working Group on Mercenaries that the Metropolitan Police had: “received a referral concerning war crimes alleged to have been committed by British mercenaries in Sri Lanka during the 1980s.”
They added: “Following receipt of the referral, the War Crimes Team began a scoping exercise into the matter, in accordance with the Crown Prosecution Service’s published guidelines for referrals of war crimes and crimes against humanity. At this stage of the investigation, the Metropolitan Police are not able to provide further comment on the details of the referral, as the scoping exercise is ongoing.”
The Metropolitan Police has separately confirmed the statement is accurate.
The probe follows the publication earlier this year of a book by Declassified UK journalist Phil Miller about British military veterans from a company called Keenie Meenie Services (KMS).
Miller exposed how KMS members were involved in war crimes against Tamil civilians at the start of Sri Lanka’s civil war in the mid-1980s – and escaped accountability.
KMS became involved in the conflict after a special adviser to British prime minister Margaret Thatcher suggested that UK support for Sri Lanka’s security forces “might be privatised”.
The company trained a new Sri Lankan police unit, called the Special Task Force (STF), which became notorious for carrying out atrocities, including a 1987 massacre at a prawn farm in Kokkadicholai, eastern Sri Lanka, in which 85 people were killed.
KMS also hired British pilots who flew helicopter gunships on combat missions, including an alleged raid on the village of Piramanthanaru, northern Sri Lanka, in which 16 people died in 1985.
The Tamil Information Centre, a community organisation in London, raised Miller’s findings with the UN Working Group on Mercenaries, which monitors private military companies.
The UN body subsequently submitted concerns about KMS to Britain’s Foreign Office, asking what criminal measures the UK government had taken to “combat impunity”. Five UN rapporteurs, including experts on torture and disappearances, supported the submission.
Dr Rachel Seoighe, a criminologist who alerted the UN on behalf of the Tamil Information Centre, said:
“It is welcome that the Metropolitan Police have finally begun to investigate what KMS did in Sri Lanka, after allowing British mercenaries to operate with impunity for so long. The UN was right to raise concerns about the lack of action by the British authorities. Tamil survivors have waited decades to see those responsible for the massacres of loved ones held accountable.”
The UN has also written to David Walker, currently a director of Saladin, a private security firm which has described KMS as its predecessor. Walker, a 78-year-old British special forces veteran, ran KMS in the 1980s while serving as a Conservative councillor in Surrey.
In their letter to Walker, the UN set out human rights concerns about his former company, noting that “a KMS employee regularly co-piloted an armed helicopter, including during operations in which civilians were allegedly killed.”
The UN added: “In one such incident brought to our attention, on 7 June 1986, a KMS employee co-piloted a helicopter from which it is alleged that the door gunner shot at a bus suspected to carry LTTE [Tamil Tiger] combatants as well as civilians. The door gunner allegedly continued to fire as men, women and children fled from the bus.”
The UN also expressed concern at how Walker’s company had taken on roles within Sri Lanka’s military that “increasingly appear to have gone beyond strengthening operational capability to encompass senior policy-making and advice, with indications that KMS personnel may have had some level of command responsibility at specific times.”
Demanding answers from Walker, the UN noted: “There is no information available on steps taken by KMS with respect to holding those responsible for the above allegations to account or to provide remedies to victims.”
Walker did not respond to the UN within the agency’s 60-day deadline. He had previously refused to co-operate with a US Congressional investigation into allegations KMS bombed a hospital in Nicaragua during the Contra war in 1985. Nicaragua’s then ambassador to the UN described the blast as terrorism.
KMS reduced its activities in the late-1980s following controversy around its work in Sri Lanka and Nicaragua, although it is not known exactly when KMS stopped trading because its accounts were registered offshore in tax havens.
As KMS wound down, Walker extended his control over another security company, Saladin Security, which used the old KMS office in London until as recently as 2018. The UN noted close links between the two firms, “including at the highest managerial level”.
Walker was challenged by the UN on whether his current company Saladin had learnt from his previous experience with KMS, expressing “concern about the lack of adequate due diligence measures to ensure non-repetition of human rights abuses in current operations.”
The UN added: “This is of utmost importance given that Saladin Security is operating in areas affected by armed conflict in which there are heightened risks of gross human rights abuses.” Current Saladincontracts include providing security for the oil industry at a site in Lokichar, northern Kenya. (By Dr Rachel Seoighe)