Page last updated at 09:32 GMT, Tuesday, 2 September 2008 10:32 UK

Taleban suspects held in dog pen

By Nick Bryant
BBC News, Sydney

An Australian soldier in Afghanistan
Australia has 1,000 troops in Afghanistan

The Australian Defence Force has confirmed that its troops held four suspected Taleban militants in an empty dog pen for 24 hours.

The men were arrested in a raid by Australian special forces in Afghanistan in late April.

The arrests came two days after the death of an Australian commando at the hands of the Taleban.

In Islamic tradition, dogs are viewed as unclean and impure, and many Muslims try to avoid contact with them.

Muslim groups have expressed alarm that dog pens were used; the Islamic High Council said it infringed human rights.

The Australian Defence Force has claimed the prisoners were not maltreated, but it did find evidence of what it called "cultural misunderstandings" in the use of the pens.

One of the detainees, who was later released, was a 70-year-old man.

It is quite appalling that the Australian soldiers are in any way caught up in the inhumane treatment of human beings - irrespective of who they are
Ikebal Patel
President, Australian Federation of Islamic Councils

According to the Australian defence department, the empty dog pens offered the most secure facilities at a remote Afghan army base, and were used for one day until the prisoners could be transferred to a purpose-built facility.

An internal inquiry has cleared the soldiers of mistreatment.

Australian Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon defended the soldiers' behaviour and said there had been no breach of the Geneva Conventions.

"You know we are at war in Afghanistan with people who would employ any tactic, including the use of children as shields and as a means of propaganda, and it's a tough battle," he said.

"But we always endeavour to comply on all occasions with international law, and I'm confident that our people have done so."

Rights infringed?

Some Islamic leaders in Australia have said they are appalled, adding that no human beings, irrespective of their faith, should be held in a dog pen.

"It is quite appalling that the Australian soldiers are in any way caught up in the inhumane treatment of human beings - irrespective of who they are," said the president of the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils, Ikebal Patel.

"I think it's quite despicable that something like that could happen and that the Australians are party to it," he added.

And the Afghan ambassador to Australia warned that the incident could be used as a valuable propaganda tool by the Taleban.

Mr Fitzgibbon said he was aware that the use of the pens might offend some people, but the safety of Australian soldiers had to come first.

"Our people were patrolling far away from our main base in Tarin Kowt, near one of our forward operating bases. They did detain people suspected of the worst and most atrocious acts. And they detained them in the most practical way available to them at the time," he told Australian Broadcasting Corporation radio.

Mr Fitzgibbon said that it was misleading to characterise the holding facility as a dog pen.

"They were in a compound I've had described to me as a walled compound, which I'm sure is used for a variety of purposes," he told ABC.

"I'm advised that the compound is from time to time used to hold dogs, yes. Dogs are a very important part of our operations there."

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