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UK Foreign Office Covers Its War Crimes – yet need to corner Sri Lanka

The files requested relate to the extent of UK’s support for mercenaries training Sri Lanka’s security forces. Photograph: Chamila Karunarathne/EPA

The Foreign Office is resisting publishing files relating to its diplomatic support for British mercenaries in Sri Lanka in the 1980s, despite the Metropolitan police launching an unprecedented inquiry into potential war crimes by those individuals.

Phil Miller, an investigative journalist, is taking the Foreign Office to an information tribunal over the release of files dating back to 1985 on Keenie Meenie Services (KMS), one of Britain’s first mercenary companies.

The files relate to the extent of UK diplomatic support for the training of Sri Lankan security forces by the company.

The Met launched a scoping exercise in March into allegations of war crimes committed by the firm , and this has now been elevated into a fully fledged inquiry – the first of its kind.

Miller, the author of a book and film on British involvement in the Sri Lankan civil war, said the Foreign Office had been obstructive throughout his attempts to gain information and access to UK files. “They have sat on this evidence for years. You have to ask yourself why the UK government wants to keep a file about Keenie Meenie hidden from the Tamil community until 2046.”

The UK government is citing international relations and information provided in confidence for keeping the 1985 files secret. Its decision has been endorsed by a national advisory body at the National Archives based in Kew.

The government’s own rules say diplomatic files should normally be released after 20 years, not 60 as stipulated with this file. The file relates to the extent of UK government support for the mercenaries training Sri Lankan security forces, and the roles they were asked to undertake.

The Met inquiry may be seen to weaken the case for suppression of the file. Geoffrey Howe was the UK foreign secretary at the time, while the Asia minister was Janet Young, a former leader of the House of Lords. Both have since died.

Over the past two weeks, Miller has crowd funded money to take the Foreign Office to the information tribunal. The case is now likely to be heard next year.

“If we win, the full file will be made public, allowing you to read the real story about the relationship between Thatcher’s government and British mercenaries,” said Miller.

The Met’s initial scoping exercise followed inquiries by the UN and the publication of a book written by Miller, who works for Declassified, a news outlet specialising in investigations into UK foreign policy.

The book details how KMS, at the suggestion of Thatcher-era politicians, trained a Sri Lankan police unit called the Special Task Force.

One of the diplomats who appears to have been aware of KMS’s role was Sir Anthony Parsons, a former British ambassador to Tehran and later a part-time special adviser to Margaret Thatcher. He died in 1996.

The UK was concerned that many of the Tamil terrorists had communist sympathies and would be open to Russian influence.

The UN wrote to David Walker, a director of Saladin Security, a private security firm described as a predecessor to KMS. Walker, 78, a British special forces veteran, ran KMS in the 1980s while serving as a Conservative councillor in Surrey.

In its 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”. It is thought that many other KMS staff have now died.

Saladin, in a letter to the office of the UN high commissioner for human rights, said it had cooperated with the UN inquiry, and its training was designed to inculcate a philosophy of winning hearts and minds. KMS was dissolved in 1988, the letter said adding that all the key figures in the organisation were now dead.

The role of mercenaries is often seen as a throwback to a previous era, but in fact unregulated private security firms are playing an increasing and sometimes decisive role in modern warfare, often deployed by Turkey and Russia in Libya and Syria.

The Foreign Office has said it is cooperating with the police inquiry and “takes very seriously allegations raised in relation to the activities of Keenie Meenie Services in Sri Lanka in the 1980s”.

It said it was not a subject of the Met investigation but had given the police a copy of the files that it has refused to release to the public.

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