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24 February 2000 Edition

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MoD destroys Bloody Sunday rifles

BY LAURA FRIEL

The credibility of the Saville inquiry into the events of Bloody Sunday was further undermined last week after it was revealed that the British Ministry of Defence (MoD) had destroyed two more of the remaining five rifles fired by British soldiers. Confirmation was given by British Defence Minister Geoffrey Hoon in the British House of Commons last Thursday. The minister said it was a matter of deep regret that the two rifles had been destroyed and that an investigation into the matter had begun.

     
The Saville inquiry team is ``gravely concerned'' that just three of 29 rifles held after Bloody Sunday remain
After the conclusion of the Widgery Tribunal in 1972, over two dozen rifles identified as fired by British soldiers during the events of Bloody Sunday were labelled and stored by the MoD. In September last year the Saville inquiry learnt that 10 of the original 29 rifles had been sold and a further 14 had been scrapped by the MoD, just days before the new inquiry was launched. The MoD assured the Saville inquiry that the remaining five rifles had been secured, with access to them strictly controlled.

Less than six months later, the revelation that a further two rifles have been destroyed ``by mistake'' beggars belief. ``These were potentially murder weapons,'' said Tony Doherty, whose father Patrick was amongst the dead. Doherty said the MoD's actions appeared to be an attempt to destroy vital evidence and pervert the course of justice. A spokesperson for the Saville inquiry described the inquiry team's attitude as ``gravely concerned''.

Foyle Assembly member and Sinn Féin national chairperson Mitchel McLaughlin has accused the British Prime Minister of deliberately undermining the efforts of the Saville Inquiry. The inquiry is set to open next month.

``This latest revelation provides yet more evidence that there are elements within the British military establishment which are determined to prevent the truth of Bloody Sunday emerging,'' said McLaughlin, ``since the inception of the inquiry Tony Blair has presided over a government which has allowed the course of proceedings to be stalled, obstructed and undermined.''

Confidence in the integrity of the Inquiry is gradually being sapped, said the Sinn Féin politician. ``The bereaved and wounded of Bloody Sunday have fought a long campaign for truth and justice, it is clear from these latest developments that there remains a powerful lobby staunchly opposed to a fully comprehensive investigation and the onus is on the British Prime Minister to ensure that these elements do not succeed in thwarting the aims of the Saville inquiry.''

The destruction of two of the remaining weapons has not only further confirmed that the British military have something to hide but has also fuelled speculation around what they may be hiding and its significance. One possibility currently being mooted is that one of the two destroyed rifles could belong to the witness known as Soldier H.

Soldier H gained notoriety because even Widgery found it difficult to believe his evidence. The soldier was the member of the anti-tank platoon. He substantially altered his initial account of events, specific details which could have led to a charge of ``murder or attempted murder'' were changed, and the evidence he presented did not accord with accounts given by other soldiers. In the most bizarre claim, Soldier H said he fired at a gunman at a window on 19 separate occasions.

Other speculation has suggested that the destroyed weapons may not have been SLRs but .303 mark 4 sniper rifles. This has been dismissed by the MoD as ``rubbish''. Whether the 29 weapons retained after Widgery and of which now only three remain available for forensic examination were all SLRs or not is perhaps not the question. Eyewitness accounts and the detail in some autopsy reports suggest sniper rifles were fired by the British Army on that day. The question is, where are these weapons and why have they never been produced as evidence?

Meanwhile, a British Army whistleblower has offered to give evidence to the Saville Inquiry if he is allowed to testify anonymously. Known as Martin Ingram, the whistleblower was a former member of the covert British Military Intelligence unit, FRU.

Following revelations last November in which Ingram claimed that offices occupied by the Stevens Inquiry team in the early 1990s were deliberately set on fire by a covert British Army unit, Ingram has been the subject of a nationwide search by the British MoD and Metropolitan Special Branch. According to Liam Clarke of the Sunday Times, one British soldier has been arrested on suspicion of being Ingram and several others have been questioned.

The offer to give evidence to the Saville Inquiry came through Ingram's solicitor, John Wadham. Wadham is one of Britain's leading civil rights experts and director of Liberty. Wadham described Ingram's offer to come forward as courageous. A solicitor acting for one of the families has also called for Ingram to be allowed to testify.

In an interview published by the Sunday Times last year, Ingram claimed to have seen intelligence files relating to Bloody Sunday which showed that the IRA had been ordered not to open fire. This contradicts the British Army's claim that they expected to be attacked. Since publishing the interview, the Sunday Times has been the subject of a gagging order banning further publication of revelations concerning the FRU.
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