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Last Updated: Tuesday, 14 March 2006, 17:01 GMT
Red Caps died in 'benign' region
From top left: Sergeant Simon Alexander Hamilton-Jewell; Corporal Russell Aston; Corporal Paul Graham Long; Corporal Simon Miller; Lance-Corporal Benjamin Hyde; Lance-Corporal Thomas Keys.
Some of the six who died were about to head back to the UK
The commander in charge of six Royal Miltary Policemen killed by a mob in Iraq has told their inquest it was not seen as a volatile part of the country.

Col Thomas A Beckett denied claims made by the men's families they were sent into a "powder keg", saying it was one of the most "benign" areas of Iraq.

The men, from the Goojerat Barracks in Essex, died in an attack on a police station in Majar al-Kabir in 2003.

Their relatives claim the Army could have done more to prevent the deaths.

Col Beckett, the first witness, said Maysan province had a population of between 500,000 to 550,000 people which was split down political, religious and tribal lines.

This was the most benign province in Iraq
Colonel Thomas A Beckett

There was approximately one Kalashnikov automatic rifle for every head of population and a two-week weapons amnesty had failed, he said.

But there was not any previous history of attacks against troops, he added.

"The intent (of the locals) was to work with the coalition, that was my belief.

"It was a genuinely held belief by the majority of people that this was the most benign province in Iraq."

This was why, he explained when challenged by solicitor John Mackenzie representing five of the families, there where only some 1,060 troops from the 1 UK Battle Group in the province, when there are around 20,000 in similarly-sized Northern Ireland.

"You were sitting on a powder keg," said Mr Mackenzie.

Mr Beckett responded: "No, my estimate of the problems - and this was supported by the local leaders and, I believe, at divisional level - is benign but fragile."

There were only 20 to 25 soldiers from 156 Provost Company to train up the entire provincial police force and it would have been desirable to have had double that, he said.

'Heavy-handed'

Before the inquest, Reg Keys, the father of Lance Corporal Tom Keys, said he wanted the inquest to bring the true facts to light and prove that the deaths could have been prevented.

SIX DEATHS IN IRAQ
Cpl Simon Miller
21, from Tyne and Wear
Sgt Simon Hamilton-Jewell
41, of Chessington, Surrey
Cpl Russell Aston
30, of Swadlincote, Derbyshire
Cpl Paul Long
24, from Colchester
L/Cpl Benjamin McGowan Hyde
23, of Northallerton, North Yorkshire
L/Cpl Tom Keys
20, of Bala, North Wales

The six Red Caps killed included Sgt Simon Hamilton-Jewell, 41, from Chessington, Surrey; and 30-year-old Cpl Russell Aston from Swadlincote, Derbyshire.

The others were all in their twenties: Cpl Paul Long, 24, of Colchester; L/Cpl Benjamin McGowan Hyde, 23, from Northallerton, North Yorkshire; L/Cpl Tom Keys, 20, from Bala, North Wales; and Cpl Simon Miller, 21, from Tyne and Wear.

Some of the men were on their last day of duty in Iraq and were due to fly home the next day.

It is thought they were attacked during demonstrations against what were regarded by some as heavy-handed weapons searches.

An Army inquiry into the deaths found "no conclusive evidence" that they could have been prevented.

But it did find the men had not received instructions about how much ammunition they should carry and that communications in the area were "poor".

The inquest, in Oxford, is expected to last several weeks.




BBC NEWS: VIDEO AND AUDIO
A father of one of the victims talks about the attacks



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