Getting away with war crimes

Getting away with war crimes

WHEN eight British soldiers were arrested by the gardaí in the middle of the night in May 1976, it was one of the most embarrassing diplomatic incidents of the Troubles.

Captured inside the Republic of Ireland and taken to Dundalk Garda Station, the men were accused of illegally carrying firearms, including a sawn-off shotgun.

To make matters worse, it emerged that they were from the British army’s most elite unit, the Special Air Service (SAS), raising concerns about possible covert cross-border operations.

When they were put on trial in Dublin, their SAS squadron commander, Major Brian Baty, told the court his men had made a humiliating “map-reading error” and they were let off with a fine.

However, the incident shone an uncomfortable light on SAS operations in South Armagh at the time, and put Baty on a Republican hit list.

Fast forward nearly a decade later to Christmas Eve 1984, and a Marxist revolutionary Peter Jordan was arrested by Special Branch for plotting to assassinate Baty, who had recently retired from the British army as a lieutenant colonel.

The thwarted plot triggered further media coverage, but what Baty did next has so far received much less attention. Using declassified files and interviews with insiders, my new book, Keenie Meenie: The British Mercenaries Who Got Away with War Crimes, reveals that within months of this failed attempt on his life, Baty was working as a mercenary in Sri Lanka.

“He was a target of the IRA in England at that time so then he came and served us here,” a former Sri Lankan security official said.

“To keep the anonymity we gave him the name of Ken Whyte.”

While Baty used a nom de guerre, the company he worked for had a name that escapes definition: Keenie Meenie Services (KMS). It is thought to be derived from Arabic or Swahili slang for undercover activities,although no one seems certain.

In Sri Lanka, KMS was paid millions of pounds by the country’s right-wing president, Junius Richard Jayewardene, to help crush the island’s rebellious Tamil minority.

This ethnic group of mostly Hindus and Christians was fighting for independence from the ruling Sinhalese Buddhist majority, and were giving the inexperienced Sri Lankan military a run for their money. And had it not been for KMS, the Tamils may well have won.

President J R Jayewardene hired mercenary forces to help crush Sri Lanka’s Tamil revolutionaries
President J R Jayewardene hired mercenary forces to help crush Sri Lanka’s Tamil revolutionaries

Special Task Force

Keenie Meenie Services was run by battle-hardened SAS veterans like Baty, who between them had seen action across the planet from Malaysia, Yemen, Ireland, and Oman.

They were a formidible asset to the Sri Lankan side and their first task was to set up an elite police commando unit known as the Special Task Force (STF). A training academy was constructed in Sri Lanka along the lines of the SAS headquarters in Hereford.

In one room at the camp, there is a varnished wooden board hanging proudly from a wall that lists the names of all the STF’s chief instructors since the unit’s inception.

The first two names were not Sri Lankan: “Ginger Ress” and “Tom Hegan”. These were foreign men who ran training at the camp for its first three years, and one of them may well have been embroiled in the Flagstaff Hill incident.

My research strongly suggests that “Ginger Ress” was in fact Malcolm Rees [sic], a former SAS soldier who was arrested by the gardaí in 1976 during that illegal border crossing.

British army records show he quit UK forces a week before the STF wall of fame registered his arrival in Sri Lanka in February 1984.

The KMS instructors at the camp set to work churning out 120 new commandos every 12 weeks, making them fire 3,000 rounds of ammunition each. By September 1984, the STF was already embroiled in controversy. Tamil rebels detonated a land mine near Point Pedro, the island’s northern most tip. Four STF men were killed in the blast, and their surviving colleagues set out on a revenge mission together with soldiers from the army. Up to 18 Tamil civilians were massacred in retaliation and Point Pedro’s historic Hartley College Library was burnt down.

“There were more than 2,000 books, valuable books, everything burnt,” a former Harley College maths teacher Joseph Rajaratnam lamented to me.

There were no consequences for this bloodshed. Sri Lanka’s national security minister Lalith Athulathmudali said he was “quite pleased with the performance of the KMS-trained Police Special Task Force” and “impressed by the way they fought back at Tikkam [Point Pedro] and believes that the terrorists respect and fear them”.

The next month Sri Lanka’sdefence secretary General Don Attygalle landed in Belfast for a secret Sunday luncheon with RUC Chief Constable John Hermon. The rendezvous took place amidst the Stalker Inquiry into killings by Hermon’s own police commando unit.

Hermon advised his visitor on “anti-mine precautions for mobile security force patrols” and “tactics used by security forces in built up areas”, both issues being of direct relevance to the incident at Point Pedro.

Getting away with war crimes

Air power

Despite receiving such advice from the RUC’s most senior figure, the Sri Lankan forces continued to struggle militarily against the Tamil movement and by the middle of 1985 there was a ceasefire and delicate peace talks underway in the mountain kingdom of Bhutan.

Behind the scenes, KMS helped Sri Lanka’s President rearm to ensure he had the upper hand if the ceasefire broke down. Baty reportedly said that the military was “putting too much faith” in the negotiations, and KMS took no chances, recruiting helicopter pilots in England to come out and train the Sri Lankan Air Force. In time, these British pilots would become more than mere instructors. By the end of 1985, British diplomats noted “we believe only KMS pilots are currently capable of flying armed helicopter assault operations in Sri Lanka.”

In one case, a white pilot was seen landing in the remote Tamil village of Piramanthanaru. An eyewitness claims that Sri Lankan troops then disembarked and proceeded to massacre 16 people. Another KMS pilot, Tim Smith, who had flown with the army air corps in Northern Ireland, took part in aerial sorties in Sri Lanka in which anything that moved was “in season”.

Amidst these war crimes, Baty was solidifying his role in the Sri Lankan military hierarchy, and records show he was the most senior KMS man permanently stationed in Sri Lanka.

Britain’s former defence attache, who regularly met with Baty,confirmed to me that Baty was “into the policy making, yes, or he was privy to it, so he was very much involved”.

Baty was so well connected that he had a “private dinner party” with President Jayewardene.

Baty deepened the company’s role in Sri Lanka, drawing up a syllabus for a new jungle warfare school and sending KMS instructors to teach army officers and commandos.

This combination of air power, police and soldiers culminated in January 1987 when they took part in a massacre of around 85 Tamil civilians at the Kokkadicholai Prawn Farm in Eastern Sri Lanka. Three years after the massacre at Point Pedro, the units trained by KMS had in fact become more murderous.

SAS mercenaries have been accused of war crimes against Tamil revolutionaries.
SAS mercenaries have been accused of war crimes against Tamil revolutionaries.

THE degree of bloodshed had already become too much for some men under Baty’s command. Robin Horsfall, an SAS veteran who served in Northern Ireland and the Iranian embassy siege, quit KMS in disgust after hearing that Sri Lankan troops had burnt prisoners to death in rubber tyres.

“There’s been a terrible genocide that’s taken place in Sri Lanka,” Horsfall told me. “I left because I wasn’t happy with the role that I was being asked to fulfil.”

Declassified files indicate that Baty remained in Sri Lanka long after Horsfall quit, working there until April 1988, by which point the STF had switched its focus from the Tamil minority to Sinhalese left-wing youth, whose ethnicity did not spare them from the ferocity of this KMS-trained death squad.

While researching KMS, I wrote to Baty several times asking him to comment on these allegations about his tenure with KMS in Sri Lanka. When he did not respond, I went to his house to ask for an interview.

There was no answer at the door until a first floor window flung open and Baty yelled at me repeatedly to “bugger off”. His time in Sri Lanka is clearly not something he wants to talk about.

Phil Miller is a staff reporter for Declassified UK and director of Yardstick Films. His debut book, Keenie Meenie: The British Mercenaries Who Got Away With War Crimes, is on sale now from Pluto Press for STG£12.99. A documentary about Keenie Meenie will be released by Yardstick Films later this year.

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