Ombudsman backs NZDF in handling of Afghanistan civilian deaths, but says it created 'mistrust'

While the Defence Force could have been "considerably more responsive" to allegations of civilian deaths in Afghanistan, it was justified in withholding key information, the Chief Ombudsman has found.

New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) soldiers. Source: NZDF/Flickr

The NZDF faced five complaints over information it refused to make public after the release of the book "Hit and Run" last year.

Its authors, journalists Jon Stephenson and Nicky Hager, claimed six civilians were killed and 15 were injured during an attack on two Afghan villages led by New Zealand SAS troops in 2010.

Today, Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier released a decision backing the Defence Force in not releasing some information about the operation under the Official Information Act.

"Some of the withheld information was received from other countries who didn't wish to declassify or release it," Mr Boshier said.

"For NZDF to do so would have gravely affected other nations' willingness to share information with us in future.

"Much of the withheld information also contained sensitive details which, if released, could prejudice New Zealand's defence and security."

However, his decision was not without its criticism and called for the release of limited information, including about the identification of insurgents killed during Operation Burnham and redacted briefing documents to the government.

Since the original complaint, the NZDF had published online some of the information requested, but Mr Boshier noted the requester hadn't been told and the new material was hidden away on the website.

"NZDF could have been considerably more responsive in how it handled these information requests," Mr Boshier said.

"It has given the appearance of reluctance on the part of NZDF and requesters have understandably developed some mistrust as a result."

The Defence Force last year emphatically said New Zealand troops did not raid the villages named in the book and that Operation Burnham - which they said took place about two kilometres away - resulted in the deaths of nine insurgents.

Last month it admitted photographs of the village shown in the book were of Tirgiran Village, the place the SAS said it had participated in the raid and Hager at the time said it showed the original claims had been a diversion.

Attorney-General David Parker is currently deciding whether a government probe needs to be launched into the incident.

He's expected to make a decision shortly.

Labour called for an investigation while in opposition.