Two British soldiers are being investigated over claims they sexually abused two Afghan children.
A sergeant and a private are alleged to have encouraged a boy and a girl aged about ten to touch them inappropriately.
The uniformed servicemen were accused of filming the separate incidents before showing the footage to shocked colleagues on their laptop computers.
Military police are said to have arrested the pair after complaints from their comrades.
The two soldiers were reported to belong to the 2nd Mercian Battalion Battle Group, which is fighting the Taliban in the Nahr-e Saraj area of Helmand. This was denied by military sources, who refused to identify the troops’ regiment. The Ministry of Defence said it was taking the claims ‘very, very seriously’. Officers from the Royal Military Police are investigating.
A source close to the investigation said: ‘Nothing has been proven. What we have to establish is whether we are looking at sexual predatory behaviour, or totally ill-judged larking about.
‘Whatever the case, it is utterly inappropriate and terribly damaging to the British Army’s reputation in Afghanistan.’
A senior defence source said: ‘We are determined to get to the bottom of this ASAP. Any criminal behaviour will be dealt with robustly and must not be allowed to undermine the excellent work our Armed Forces are doing in Afghanistan.’
Royal Military Police officers are understood to have seized several laptops and their contents will be sifted by experts for any evidence of wrong-doing.
An MoD spokesman said: ‘We are aware that an allegation has been made concerning alleged inappropriate behaviour by two servicemen in Afghanistan.
‘The Royal Military Police (Special Investigations Branch) has launched an investigation. We take any such allegation extremely seriously. It would be inappropriate to comment further while an investigation is ongoing.’
The Armed Forces are especially sensitive to any allegation which could undermine the work they are doing to win the ‘hearts and minds’ of people in Helmand.
It is the first time that allegations of abuse against children by British troops have been investigated in either Iraq or Afghanistan. However, claims that UK troops abused, tortured and murdered Iraqi civilians during the second Gulf War have surfaced several times.
One soldier, Corporal Donald Payne, was jailed for a year after admitting he was involved in assaulting Baha Mousa, a 26-year-old hotel receptionist who was beaten to death in Basra in 2003. He became the first British soldier to be convicted of a war crime.
A devastating report into Mr Mousa’s death found last year that he suffered ‘appalling gratuitous violence’ at the hands of members of the 1st Battalion Queen’s Lancashire Regiment. Up to 14 serving soldiers, along with 12 retired colleagues, face possible prosecution over the shameful incident.
And more than 100 Iraqi civilians who claim they were abused by UK forces won a legal battle at the Court of Appeal in November that they hope will lead to a detailed investigation.
The damaging allegations come just days after four U.S. marines were seen in a video urinating on dead Afghans.
The 40-second clip shows the men in combat gear standing over the three corpses as they relieve themselves.