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Afghanistan: Ex-SAS man framed for Kabul killings

by Lucy Morgan EdwardsSunday Times (London)
June 15th, 2003


A BRITISH man held in jail in Kabul and accused of killing two Afghans in a mysterious shoot-out in his hotel bedroom has declared his innocence.


Speaking for the first time, Colin Berry, 37, who has identified himself as a former SAS soldier, said he had been engaged in intelligence work for the Afghan government and had also been passing information about trafficking in arms and drugs in Afghanistan to MI6.


Berry was wounded in the shooting at the InterContinental hotel in Kabul in February. As he told his story he pulled up the top of his black salwar kameez (Afghan traditional dress) and showed a line of stitches across his navel.


He claimed two American special forces soldiers had shot the Afghans in the head, but had covered up their role and the blame had fallen on him. He was now trapped in a nightmare, facing the death penalty if convicted by an Afghan court.


Even British embassy officials seemed to have distanced themselves, he said. "The consul told me recently, 'Sorry but we cannot provide you with a translator as we can't do anything that shows you have a link with us'."


Berry was sitting on a bench in a room with dirty green walls and an iron bedstead. A burly man more than 6ft tall, he seemed calm and had gained the respect of his jailers. "He is my brother and this is a very bad case," said Ajmal, a commander at the jail.


Kabul is a city rife with intrigue and prone to sudden violence. Even so, the shooting of two Afghans in an Englishman's hotel room was such a startling event that it is still being gossiped about today.


Berry said he had gone to Afghanistan last year as a businessman to work on a prefabricated housing project. But as a former SAS man with experience of the country - he had provided specialist weapons training to the mujaheddin when they were resisting the Soviet occupation in the 1980s - he had also carried out intelligence work for the Afghans and the British.


Working undercover he had started to investigate weapons, including surface-to-air missiles, that the CIA had supplied to Afghan commanders in the 1980s to help them fight the Russians. The Americans were now buying the weapons back for tens of thousands of dollars to stop them falling into terrorist hands but some, he had discovered, were ending up back with rebel groups.


"We were organising teams of five men to track down the weapons which the Americans were buying back," Berry said. "The Afghans suspected that these were somehow being recirculated, via both Pakistani and Iranian intelligence services, to people who would do harm to the Afghan government, maybe Al-Qaeda."


The work he was undertaking for the chief of Afghan intelligence and a brigadier-general was potentially highly dangerous. So, too, was the information he had gathered about drug-trafficking by Afghan provincial figures.


As a result, Berry said, the Afghan government ensured he was armed at all times. As a further precaution he had lodged a copy of his secret Afghan dossier with his solicitor in Britain.


The Sunday Times has seen this dossier. It includes a message to a British intelligence contact giving names and locations of weapons handed over to the Americans, including "40 Blowpipe surface-to-air missiles, 12 Redeye missiles, two Milan anti-tank missiles and numerous other pieces of ordnance". Berry had a list of serial numbers of the weapons, which he had begun tracing back to the field.


The letter continues: "We have also arranged for the handover of one kilo of uranium, soon to take place." There was a detailed list of Afghan figures suspected of involvement in smuggling opium, of which Afghanistan is the world's biggest producer.


One message dated January 25, a month before the hotel shooting, spoke of a Pakistani man with "strong clear information" about Al-Qaeda operations on the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan.


But just how dangerous a game Berry had become involved in was not clear until the evening of February 25. He said he had a heated argument over his intelligence-gathering work with two American special forces soldiers. "I sat with them pointing a gun at me in my hotel room all afternoon," he said.


"At 5.45pm two Afghans arrived who worked for Iranian intelligence. I knew this because I'd seen one of them before and the Americans admitted it. They were also working with the ISI (Pakistani intelligence service) to run Al-Qaeda teams on the Pakistani border."


Berry said that as far as the Americans were concerned the Afghans were "now expendable".


"They handcuffed one and the other went to grab his gun. I put my hand out but he shot me and the bullet went into my abdomen. I fell between the beds.


"Now the Americans began shooting, having grabbed my gun, which was a Makarov, and I think they used that on at least one of the Afghans. The other American may have used a different gun. But they shot them both in the head.


"Then the door was kicked in by more Americans. About six were now in the room. They asked what was mine, tied an anorak around me and carried me to the car park where six Land Cruisers full of special forces soldiers and CIA were waiting.


"They took me to the Italian civilian hospital, though I begged them to keep me with the military, or I would have to invent a cover story. They were on their radios, swearing and panicking."


During the next two weeks Berry was questioned by a general from the Afghan intelligence police. The Afghans tortured him with electric shocks and put him before a mock firing squad because he had maintained the story that he was responsible for the killings, he said. "They said they knew the Americans had been there and wanted to know the truth.


"Finally I told them - enough time had passed for all things to be cleaned away. I knew there had to be time for things to be filtered through our government and if I'd talked early it could have led to more problems."


The killings are still under investigation. Adding to Berry's predicament, the Afghans accused him of smuggling gems, drugs and arms and claimed the two dead men had been meeting him to discuss a deal.


Last week, however, General Mohammad Asifi, the police chief, would not confirm on the phone that the allegation was still being made. "You do not know who may be listening," he said.


At his last court appearance it was said Berry had been smuggling "antiques" and had killed the two Afghans in a row about them. The involvement of US special forces was not mentioned. Hotel staff confirmed their presence, however. One, Jan Angun, said of Berry: "We thought he was a VIP because the brother of the president of Afghanistan used to meet him and they would sit in the lobby for an hour together."


Berry says his decision to release details of his undercover intelligence work in Afghanistan is a desperate effort to prove he is not the killer. One person who believed him was the original prosecutor, Abdul Qayoom, who has since been taken off the case.


Last week Berry was taken to hospital for emergency treatment to an injured testicle - a direct result, he said, of the electric torture he endured.


Details of his service with the SAS are classified. Berry left the army with the rank of sergeant in 1994. Army records describe his military conduct as "exemplary". He received a Queen's Gallantry Medal and was mentioned in dispatches for unspecified military operations. He had taken part in at least one hostage rescue.


In 1987, Berry said, he had undertaken bodyguard duty for Diana, Princess of Wales at a concert given by Jean-Michel Jarre in London.


A signed and stamped letter to Berry from the chief of intelligence in Afghanistan seems to confirm his secret role. "My department is most grateful for the support you have given us by way of intelligence gathering and direct assistance in the fight against Al-Qaeda and in particular the terrorist leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar," it says. "Your active participation in these matters has proven invaluable."


At home in Essex Berry's wife Alison is waiting for him to come home. She said their four-year-old son was longing to see his father: "He said to his teacher, "I went with my dad to watch West Ham play". He is fantasising about his father being back now, because he is missing him."


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