Claims that British soldiers unlawfully killed civilians in southern Iraq in 2004 have been withdrawn after lawyers for several Iraqi families said there was "insufficient material" to prove them.

The announcement came on Thursday after all military evidence had been presented at the Al-Sweady inquiry, a public investigation into claims that up to 20 Iraqis were tortured and killed at a base in Maysan province following a battle.

The evidence was presented over the course of a year by 281 witnesses and cost more than $36.3m.

"Following the conclusion of the military evidence and current state of disclosure by the Ministry of Defence it is our view there is insufficient material to establish that Iraqi civilians were unlawfully killed," the lawyers said.

A ministry statement said: "We have long said that there was no credible evidence for these allegations and are pleased that they have been withdrawn."

Rumours

British army officials had also dismissed the claims as "baseless rumours".

"I did not believe any of our soldiers had mutilated a body and I did not see at the time, and have not seen since, any evidence to support this proposition," Colonel Adam Griffiths told the inquiry.

He also suggested that the rumours came from "ignorance among the local population" as well as fighters' efforts to discredit the US-led troops that had invaded Iraq in 2003.

UK launches probe into Iraq 'atrocities'

Some of the bodies had broken limbs as well as gunshot wounds, Griffiths said, but said those injuries could have been caused by ammunition.

He suggested the unusual order to take bodies back to the camp might have been given to help identify a suspect in the murder of six British military policemen the year before.

But the lawyers representing the Iraqi families also stressed that there were "numerous allegations of violent and other ill-treatment of Iraqi civilians in British custody which the inquiry will have to consider."

The inquiry, set up in 2009, is the second probe into the abuse allegations, after high court judges ruled that an earlier investigation by the Royal Military Police was inadequate. It was named after one of the dead, a 19-year-old named Hamid al-Sweady.

Source: AFP