British foreign secretary David Miliband is today accused of risking civilian lives in Afghanistan by allowing UK private military companies toregulate themselves.
This warning, from the charity War on Want, comes amid mounting controversy surrounding more deaths in Afghanistan as the government today ends consultation over its proposals for self-regulation of mercenary firms.
The charity points to many human rights abuses which have involved private armies in Iraq and Afghanistan. These include:
* the wounding of two Iraqi civilians when mercenaries from UK company Erinys International fired on a cab near Kirkuk.
* mercenaries with the US firm Blackwater, now renamed Xe, shooting at and killing 17 Iraqi civilians in Baghdad.
* mercenaries working for the NATO coalition shooting the Kandahar police chief and nine of his officers in Afghanistan.
War on Want says the UK government's voluntary code of conduct for mercenaries would leave civilians in war zones such as Afghanistan and Iraq exposed to further abuse.
It has spearheaded the campaign for tough legislation, such as a ban on mercenaries' use in combat and combat support.
The charity is now demanding the government scraps its proposal for self-regulation and allows Parliament to have its say on legislation that would ensure strict controls.
Government figures show private military companies have secured British government contracts for 2008-2009 worth more than £42 million in Afghanistan alone.
Over the last three years, the UK has spent more than £148 million on contracts in Afghanistan and Iraq.
As Britain and the US plan to send more troops to Afghanistan, reports suggest there will be wider use of private armies
The Afghan and Iraqi administrations have passed laws restricting or banning mercenaries.
The US has seen moves to regulate private military companies under presidents George Bush and Barack Obama.
The United Nations has called for governments to introduce legislation to control the private military sector.
In 2002 the UK government and the Commons foreign affairs select committee admitted self-regulation was not adequate as a solution.
But if Miliband's policy goes ahead, no UK private military companies could be held to account for human rights abuse
Yasmin Khan, senior campaigns officer at War on Want, said: "Letting mercenaries run loose threatens to increase abuse in Afghanistan and Iraq. Miliband is giving private armies the power to act with impunity. The government must scrap its voluntary code for mercenaries and bring forward genuine regulation."