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Disaster for Blair as Iraq torture claims widen

BRIAN BRADY
WESTMINSTER EDITOR

THE British government was warned by Red Cross officials in February that coalition troops were abusing and even killing Iraqi captives, it emerged last night.

Downing Street has been dragged into the deepening crisis after admitting ministers were shown a copy of the Red Cross report detailing abuses so that action could be taken.

The revelation prompted immediate opposition demands that Tony Blair explain what he and senior government colleagues knew and what steps they took to stop the abuse of captives.

Last night, there was further severe embarrassment for the British military after it emerged a second regiment was apparently involved in the mistreatment of prisoners and that soldiers could face prosecution for sexual assault.

It was reported that as many as three members of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers were under investigation by military police after officers were shown photographs of Iraqi captives being forced to commit homosexual acts.

And in another development, the Ministry of Defence admitted that British military personnel were stationed at the notorious Abu Ghraib prison, the scene of the most sadistic abuses by US soldiers, for several months earlier this year.

It has already been suggested that much of the degrading treatment meted out to Iraqis was devised by the British as an interrogation tool.

The news that UK troops were based at Abu Ghraib raises further disturbing questions about what the British military knew of the abuse going on there. A Downing Street spokesman last night confirmed that the Red Cross drew their attention to allegations of abuse earlier in the year.

The spokesman said: "The International Committee of the Red Cross showed the government a copy of the report in February to enable the government to comment and take action on this."

He said the Red Cross informed the government because parts of the report concerned areas of British responsibility. He refused to reveal what action was taken.

A leaked copy of the report, confirmed as genuine by the agency, described prisoners kept naked in total darkness in empty cells at Baghdad’s Abu Ghraib prison - under US-control - and male prisoners forced to parade around in women’s underwear. Coalition forces also fired on unarmed prisoners from watchtowers, killing some of them. In another episode, nine men were arrested in Basra and beaten severely, leading to one death, it added.

New claims of abuse perpetrated by British soldiers continue to emerge. The alleged incidents involving the Fusiliers are said to have come to light when a soldier deposited his film following his return from Iraq. It is not known whether the man was responsible for taking the photographs.

The images, now held by the MoD, are described as similar to those of American troops abusing Iraqi prisoners, which caused outrage last week. Some are said to show prisoners being forced to commit sex acts on each other.

The MoD confirmed that the inquiry had been completed and the files passed Army Prosecuting Authority, which will decided on whether to proceed with charges.

Military police are already investigating numerous allegations of mistreatment of prisoners by members of the Queen’s Lancashire Regiment. The unit has suffered more than a week of terrible publicity after the Daily Mirror published pictures which it claimed showed soldiers beating and urinating on an Iraqi prisoner.

Meanwhile, evidence is mounting that British forces may have known of, and may even have helped devise, ‘interrogation’ techniques used by the US military. An MoD spokesman confirmed that three British military staff were based at Abu-Ghraid, but insisted they were unaware of abuse or the US investigation that began in January. The three interrogators interviewed a small number of prisoners with a view to "gathering information" that could help the coalition.

He said their work was consistent with the Geneva Convention and the responsibility for guarding the prisoners remained with the US.

The spokesman said the interrogators arrived at the prison after the abuse was discovered and after investigations began into the allegations. One left the prison in March while the others remained until April.

Opposition politicians insisted the stream of allegations and revelations made it essential that the government give a full account of what it knew. Shadow Foreign Secretary Michael Ancram said last night: "These new revelations show that it is now imperative that Hoon or the Foreign Secretary [Jack Straw] himself come before the House of Commons on Monday to explain when he was first informed of the abuses in Abu Ghraib."

Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy said later: "It is important that we get to the bottom of this as soon as possible. The government must make clear what it knew and when. These allegations have done enormous damage and it is important to reassure both the Iraqi people and Muslims from this country that if additional allegations are true they will be dealt with swiftly and firmly."

Meanwhile, Scotland on Sunday can reveal that Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon is thrashing out a deal with US and Iraqi leaders to allow the vast majority of inmates in British-controlled prisons to come under Iraqi control when power is transferred on June 30.

Coalition forces are currently holding 8,000 prisoners in 14 separate jails around Iraq under the terms of the Geneva Convention, which dictates the conditions of prisoners of war (PoWs).

British military chiefs are desperate to hand over the responsibility to Iraqi police as soon as possible.

Senior ministerial source said last night: "We accept this situation has caused our forces great difficulty and it is in all our interests to see that this responsibility is removed from their roster.

"We have prisoners of war, security detainees and criminal detainees, but there is no reason why the vast majority of these cannot be guarded by local officials. I would expect that within a month of the handover we would only have a handful of the most hardened detainees still in our custody."