UK denies BBC report of 1,000 deserters since 2003
By Agence France Presse (AFP), The Daily Star, 29 May 2006

LONDON: At least 1,000 troops have "deserted" Britain's armed forces since the US-led war was launched in Iraq three years ago, the BBC reported Sunday. However, Britain's Defense Ministry denied the BBC report, which did not say how it arrived at the figures, as the ministry said it knew of only "a handful of deserters since 1989."

During 2005 alone, 377 people deserted and are still missing, the BBC said on its Web site, adding that so far this year another 189 are on the run. It said some 900 have evaded capture since the Iraq war started in March 2003.

Lawmaker John McDonnell, who is on the left of the ruling Labor party, told Parliament on Monday that the "number of abscondees has trebled since the invasion of Iraq." His comments came in objection of a new Armed Forces bill that would make refusal to participate in the occupation of a foreign country punishable by a sentence of up to life in jail.

The BBC cited lawyers who represent troops at courts martial as saying that a growing numbers of soldiers are seeking advice from them about avoiding service in Iraq, even if they want to stop short of deserting.

Among them was Justin Hugheston-Roberts, who represented Flight Lieutenant Malcolm Kendall-Smith, sentenced to eight months in jail for refusing to follow orders in connection with a deployment to Iraq.

"As part of my day-to-day job, I am approached regularly by people who are seeking to absent themselves from service. There has been an increase, a definite upturn," Hugheston-Roberts was quoted as saying.

Ben Griffin, a member of the elite Special Air Service (SAS), told his commanding officer this year he was not prepared to return to Iraq because he said he saw US forces carrying out what he thought were illegal acts.

Griffin, who was allowed to leave the military, was quoted as saying that the Americans "had a complete disregard for Iraqi lives and property."

"I can't speak for others, but there's a lot of dissent in the army about the legality of war and concerns that they're spending too much time there," he told the BBC.

In response to the BBC report of at least 1,000 deserters, a Defense Ministry spokeswoman told AFP: "It's not true.

"I think they are talking about the number in the army who remain absent without leave. There have been a handful of deserters since 1989," she said.

"But basically there's no significant rise in the number of soldiers going absent without leave each year," she added.

The ministry recorded 2,670 AWOL cases in 2001, 2,970 in 2002, 2,825 in 2003, 3,050 in 2004, 2,725 in 2005, and 426 through April of 2006.

In contrast with desertion, which means that "somebody doesn't want to serve on the frontline or whatever," AWOL means that a soldier is ill or has not reported for duty, usually because of "domestic circumstances," she said.

Nor does any evidence suggest that Iraq was causing them to go AWOL, she said.

"I don't have a breakdown of figures of what people cite exactly for going AWOL. But there is no evidence to suggest it's operations," whether in Iraq, Afghanistan or elsewhere, the spokeswoman told AFP.

There are about 8,000 British troops in Iraq, based around the southern city of Basra. A total of 111 British personnel have died in Iraq since the 2003 invasion.