Leaked US military files about the conflict in Afghanistan could contain details of "thousands" of war crimes, the man behind their release has said.
Working in a coordinated fashion with The Guardian, the New York Times and German weekly Der Spiegel, whistleblowing website WikiLeaks yesterday published tens of thousands of secret records giving a day-by-day account of Nato forces' operations from January 2004 to December 2009.
The military logs revealed new details about the extent of Afghan civilian casualties, a covert special forces unit targeting insurgent leaders, and concerns that Pakistani intelligence could be supporting the Taliban.
Wikileaks founder Julian Assange said yesterday he hoped the information in the files would be investigated and exposed as a deterrent to future human rights abuses.
He told a press conference in London: "It is up to a court to decide clearly whether something is in the end a crime.
"That said, on the face of it, there does appear to be evidence of war crimes in this material."
The UK, the US and Pakistan condemned the leak of 91,000 of the classified records, and military experts warned their release could endanger the 10,000 British forces serving in Afghanistan.
But Assange insisted he had considered and ruled out the risk of troops being harmed by the information in the files.
He said: "The revelation of abuse by the US and coalition forces may cause Afghans to be upset, and rightly so.
"If governments don't like populations being upset, they should treat them better, not conceal abuses that have been undertaken."
More than 75,000 of the files were published on WikiLeaks, which said it was delaying the release of the remaining 15,000 reports as part of a "harm minimisation process" but intended to put them out in full eventually when Afghanistan's security situation permitted.
The Guardian, the New York Times and Der Spiegel were given access to the material several weeks in advance to give them time to prepare their editorial.
The files include reports of operations carried out by a secret US Special Forces unit called Task Force 373 whose role was to kill or capture senior Taliban and al Qaida commanders.
The records also log a total of 144 incidents involving Afghan civilian casualties, in which 195 non-combatants died and 174 were injured, The Guardian reported.
These include at least 21 occasions in which British troops allegedly shot or bombed Afghan civilians, leading to the deaths of at least 26 people, among them 16 children, according to the newspaper.
The Ministry of Defence said it was looking into the veracity of the information in the files.
Other entries in the logs record unconfirmed intelligence that members of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence spy agency secretly supported the Taliban.
Assange said the files were not about one single horrific event but the bigger picture of the conflict, now into its ninth year.
"The real story of this material is that it is war, it's one damn thing after another," he said.
"It's the continuous small events, the continuous deaths of children, insurgents, allied forces."
The campaigner claimed that the high level of civilian casualties reported in the files was in fact lower than the true figure because military personnel "downplayed" the number or reported them as insurgent deaths.
He added: "We would like to see the revelations that this material gives to be taken seriously, investigated by governments and new policies put in place as a result, if not prosecutions of those people who have committed abuses."
The White House criticised the "irresponsible" leak of the files, although it stressed that they dated from when George Bush was president.
General Jim Jones, president Barack Obama's national security adviser, said: "The United States strongly condemns the disclosure of classified information by individuals and organisations which could put the lives of Americans and our partners at risk, and threaten our national security."
A Downing Street spokeswoman added: "We would lament all unauthorised releases of classified material.
"The White House has made a statement. We will not comment on leaked documents."
A Ministry of Defence spokesman said: "Reducing the risk to local civilians has always formed an essential part of planning for all military operations carried out by UK forces and we always do our utmost to ensure that we shield the civilian population from violence during the course of any military activity.
"We are deeply saddened by any civilian deaths or injuries but we particularly regret incidents where civilians are killed as a result of actions by international forces."
Anti-war campaigners said the leaked documents confirmed everything they had been saying for years.
Lindsey German, convenor of the Stop The War Coalition, said: "The biggest ever wartime leaks show conclusively that the war in Afghanistan is pointless and unwinnable and the warmongers have lied to us continually.
"In this context, David Cameron's timetable of at least five more years of killing is tantamount to premeditated mass murder.
"British soldiers are being asked to kill and die in a war which is lost. They must come home now."
Oliver Luft writes for pressgazette.co.uk