Getting Away with War Crimes

by Phil Miller, Tribune, Dagenham, UK, June 23, 2020

For decades, former British soldiers with friends in high places ran a mercenary enterprise from Sri Lanka to Nicaragua – leaving a trail of death and destruction in their wake…

Behind this respectable facade, the company took on much riskier contracts, that would see it exert power and accumulate wealth on a far greater scale. Walker went to Washington, and Colonel Johnson forged ties with Sri Lanka’s right-wing president, Junius Richard Jayewardene.

Sri Lanka, a former British colony, was engulfed by a conflict between its ruling Sinhala Buddhist majority and the beleaguered Tamil minority, who demanded a separate state in the island’s north. In response, President Jayewardene hired KMS to set up a new police commando unit, the Special Task Force (STF).

The unit’s first chief instructor was an SAS veteran known as Ginger Rees, who quit the British army just days before arriving in Sri Lanka. Within months, this elite unit had gone on the rampage at Point Pedro, Sri Lanka’s northern-most tip, killing between six to eighteen civilians, and took part in the arson of Hartley College library, which housed thousands of precious manuscripts, in September 1984.

This outrage did not alarm British diplomats, and Sri Lanka’s defence secretary was able to visit London the following month to meet KMS. He was also treated to a Sunday lunch with the chief constable of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) in Belfast, to pick up tips from their handling of the Troubles.

The war in Sri Lanka continued to escalate, with the Tamil rebels gaining the upper hand militarily and forcing a ceasefire by mid-1985. As fragile peace talks began, KMS secretly provided pilots to fly Sri Lanka’s fleet of helicopter gunships, a move that would tip the balance of power against the Tamil rebels — who had no air power of their own.

In one bizarre and gruesome tactic, grenades were armed, placed inside wine glasses and then dropped from the helicopters onto the Tamils below. When the glass smashed, the grenade detonated. Scores of Tamil civilians were killed from helicopters flown by KMS pilots over the next three years.

The company also embarked on a more extensive military training scheme, that saw its staff instruct Sri Lankan army commandos, army officers, naval guards, and snipers. They also installed senior KMS staff in the military’s operations room, and provided intelligence advisers, raising the prospect of command-level responsibility for war crimes perpetrated by Sri Lankan units.

When Thatcher’s ministers occasionally voiced disquiet at the extent of KMS involvement in Sri Lanka’s war, particularly the pilots, the old-boy network swung into action. The best man at Colonel Johnson’s wedding had been Sir Anthony Royle, who was vice-chairman of the Conservative Party until 1983 and a close confidant of Thatcher.

Royle’s subtle private interventions smoothed the waters between Whitehall and KMS, allowing the company to continue its work in Sri Lanka with a few token adjustments to assuage jumpy diplomats. He was not the only one.

When the KMS-trained Special Task Force killed eighty-five Tamil civilians at the Kokkadicholai prawn farm in January 1987, Tory Immigration Minister David Waddington flew to Sri Lanka on a fact-finding mission. He reached the perverse conclusion that further assistance from KMS to Sri Lanka’s forces ‘would be welcome’, despite the fact that units trained by the company were becoming increasingly murderous.

Back in London, a British army veteran who claimed to represent the company approached the US Embassy asking for help to train the Afghan Mujahideen in sabotage operations against the Soviets. Clearly the company had grand ambitions, but pervasive censorship in the UK and US prevents the public knowing how far this liaison went.

Bombing a Hospital

Meanwhile over in Washington, Walker had befriended Colonel Oliver North. This maverick US marine was running a clandestine Contra army in Nicaragua, in a bid to overthrow the country’s democratically elected left-wing Sandinista government.

Walker was paid thousands of dollars to provide KMS pilots for Contra resupply missions, and helped bomb a hospital in Managua, Nicaragua’s capital. Although nobody was killed, Walker’s cover was blown when investigators subsequently raided North’s office and found a handwritten reference to KMS on a document in his safe.

The US Congress then forced North to testify about his unauthorised war in Nicaragua. Details about Keenie Meenie were drip-fed onto the public record, triggering awkward questions in the UK parliament from MPs who demanded to know what British mercenaries were doing in Nicaragua.

As Thatcher dodged the hostile questions in London, Walker quickly restructured the company and made its sister firm Saladin Security more prominent, scaling down Keenie Meenie’s work in Sri Lanka. ..

Three decades after the company left Sri Lanka, no member of Keenie Meenie has ever been held to account for the atrocities they perpetrated against Tamil civilians. The lawless void left by parliament and Diplock in 1976 had far-reaching consequences.

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