3 Australian soldiers face serious charges after 5 children killed in Afghanistan operation

SYDNEY (AP) — Three former Australian commandos are facing serious charges in relation to a late-night raid on a compound in Afghanistan that killed five children, Australia's top military prosecutor said Monday.

The special forces soldiers, who were not identified, face multiple charges including manslaughter, dangerous conduct, failing to comply with a lawful general order and prejudicial conduct, Brigadier Lyn McDade, the director of military prosecutions, said in a statement.

Only one of the men is charged with manslaughter, the defense department said in a separate statement.

The charges relate to a February 2009 raid on a compound in southern Uruzgan province that was believed to harbor Taliban insurgents. Six Afghans, including five children, were killed, and another two children and two adults were wounded.

The civilians died after the Special Operations Task Group soldiers used gunfire and hand grenades during the operation, the defense department said at the time.

"During the conduct of this operation, the soldiers were fired upon by Taliban insurgents," the defense department said in a statement the day after the attack. "The (soldiers) engaged the insurgents, returning fire in accordance with their rules of engagement."

Two of the soldiers said they planned to strenuously defend themselves against the charges and believed they would be vindicated when all the details of the raid were made public.

"Words will never adequately express our regret that women and children were killed and injured during the incident on 12 February 2009," the soldiers said in a statement issued by the Kennedys law firm in Sydney, which is representing the pair. "These were people we were risking our lives to protect."

They blamed the suspected insurgent inside the compound for the deaths.

"It should not be forgotten that the casualties were ultimately caused by the callous and reckless act of an insurgent who chose to repeatedly fire upon us at extreme close range from within a room he knew contained women and children," they said. "This forced us to make split-second decisions, under fire, which almost certainly saved the lives of our fellow Australian and Afghan soldiers."

The law firm also declined to identify the men, referring to them only as Soldier A and Soldier B, and refused to comment further.

The defense department initially conducted its own investigation, before referring the matter to the military prosecutor, which operates independently of the department.

In her statement, McDade said her investigations had been completed only recently after "careful, deliberate and informed consideration." She declined to comment further.

The prosecutor described the men as "former" soldiers, but did not clarify when or why they left the military. A defense department spokesman said the soldiers are no longer members of the Special Operations Task Group, but are still active members of the Army. He declined to comment further.

The case will be heard by a military tribunal expected sometime next year, the defense department said.

"I give the members facing these charges a firm, personal undertaking that I will ensure that they are thoroughly supported throughout the legal process," the Chief of Army, Lt. Gen. Ken Gillespie, said in a statement.

Australia has 1,550 troops in Afghanistan.