Former Australian Prime Minister John Howard is "distressed" by new evidence of alleged war crimes committed by Australian special forces in Afghanistan, he said Friday.
The Brereton inquiry report - a four-year investigation into the reported murder of 39 Afghan civilians and two counts of torture, which can be considered war crimes - found "credible information" that Australian forces were involved. The report says personnel tried to cover up the alleged crimes.
Howard, who committed Australian forces to Afghanistan following the Sept. 11 attacks in the U.S., said that the allegations were at odds with the values of the country's military. However, he said the "damning" evidence presented in the report was "deeply disturbing" and "appalling."
"I can understand the revulsion people feel...I feel it. But I am not going to allow that to diminish my regard for those men and women who have always done the right thing and bravely and professionally defended the interest and values of our country," Howard said during an interview.
Howard said 41 members of the country's Defense Force had died in the Afghanistan conflict. He said Australians should be grateful for their service.
In the report, published Thursday, Maj. Gen. Justice Paul Brereton said he found evidence showing at least 25 Australian soldiers were involved in the unlawful killing of 39 Afghan civilians. The report said that none of the murders were "in the heat of battle" and that most of those killed were detainees.
In some instances, soldiers allegedly killed civilians at the instruction of their commanders. This was part of a "blooding" practice where young soldiers were initiated by forcing them to make their first kill by executing detainees. Two teenage Afghan boys reportedly had their throats slit by Special Air Service operators.
The new evidence also sparked shock and anger in Afghanistan with one group describing the actions as a "betrayal."
The Afghanistan Human Rights and Democracy Organization said it was working to find the families of the alleged victims. Afghan groups were less shocked at the level of violence but more so that it was perpetrated by Australian forces.