Australian defence minister Linda Reynolds said she was “physically ill” after reading a military report which claimed to have evidence showing 39 Afghan prisoners, farmers and civilians were unlawfully killed by Australian elite soldiers.
She told a business conference in Perth: “I was like every other Australian who watched that; I was totally and utterly shocked and mortified.
“I got the report two weeks ago and it made me physically ill.”
Australian Defence Force chief General Angus Campbell said on Thursday that the report included alleged instances in which new Special Air Service patrol members would shoot a prisoner in order to achieve their first kill, in a practice known as “blooding”.
The defence chief was announcing the findings of a four-year investigation by Paul Brereton, a judge who interviewed more than 400 witnesses and reviewed thousands of pages of documents.
Gen Campbell said soldiers had also planted weapons and radios to support false claims the prisoners were enemies killed in action.
He unreservedly apologised to the Afghan people.
The report recommended 19 soldiers should be referred to federal police for criminal investigation. Gen Campbell said he is accepting all the report’s recommendations.
“It is, I think, distressing for everybody who has or still does wear the uniform,” Ms Reynolds said.
“But if you look at it the other way, the fact is we have faced up to this because it doesn’t represent our values as a nation, it does not represent the values of the Australian Defence Force, and we have to tackle it, but to tackle it we have to be honest and it has to be transparent.”
Gen Campbell said the illegal killings began in 2009, with the majority occurring in 2012 and 2013. He said some members of the elite Special Air Service encouraged “a self-centred, warrior culture”.
Australian prime minister Scott Morrison has already announced a special investigator will help pursue possible prosecutions because the workload would overwhelm existing police resources.