By Michael Holden
LONDON (Reuters) -The chair of a public inquiry examining "extremely serious" allegations that British armed forces carried out dozens of extra-judicial killings in Afghanistan said on Wednesday that any soldiers who had broken the law should face investigation.
The independent inquiry was ordered by Britain's defence ministry last December after a BBC TV documentary reported that soldiers from the elite Special Air Service (SAS) had killed 54 people in suspicious circumstances.
It also came after two families, who accuse the SAS of killing their relatives in 2011 and 2012, began legal action to demand judicial reviews of their cases.
"The allegations which the inquiry has to consider - and they are, I stress, only allegations at this stage - are extremely serious," the chair, senior judge Charles Haddon-Cave, told reporters at the official launch of the independent inquiry.
He said his investigation would examine whether there was unlawful activity by British military personnel between mid-2010 and mid-2013 during 'deliberate detention operations', and whether there was credible information of extra-judicial killings.
It will also look at whether investigations by the military police were properly conducted, and if any unlawful killings were covered up to prevent them "ever coming to light".
"It is clearly important that anyone who has broken the law is referred to the relevant authorities for investigation," he said. "Equally, those who have done nothing wrong should rightly have the cloud of suspicion lifted from them. This is critical, both for the reputation of the armed forces and the country."
British military police have previously conducted several inquiries into allegations of misconduct by forces in Afghanistan, including those made against the SAS, but the Ministry of Defence has said that none found enough evidence for prosecutions.
Asked if the inquiry could lead to police involvement, Haddon-Cave, who can compel witnesses to appear before him although many will do so in private hearings, said his task was to establish whether there was credible substance to the allegations and then to make recommendations.
"I'm confident that I and my inquiry team will get to the bottom of this," he said, appealing for anyone with information to come forward. He said he could consider any relevant evidence, even from the Taliban.
(Reporting by Michael Holden; editing by William James)