Soldiers have been charged with starting a ‘huge’ bushfire at a wildlife sanctuary in Kenya while using cocaine, a court has heard.
The British military has been blamed after a fire caused widespread devastation at Lolldaiga Hills Ranch, a 49,000-acre wildlife sanctuary home to rare zebras, leopards, elephants and more than 400 species of birds.
The fire has also had a massive impact on the land of communities surrounding Lolldaiga, putting them at risk of drought and encroachment on their farms by displaced wildlife, residents say.
The reserve is used by the British Army Training Unit Kenya (BATUK) for training maneuvers. The unit was continued by more than 1,000 people backed by environmental lobby group The African Center for Corrective and Preventive Action (ACCPA).
A fifth of the animal reserve destroyed
A hearing at Kenya’s High Court has been told that locals and animals have been forced to flee ‘howling hot winds’ blowing over the Lolldaiga hills following the blaze which destroyed around a fifth of the reserve in March last year during an apparent military exercise.
The court heard ACCPA and locals are seeking compensation and reparations for the impact of the fire, which they say was “caused by officers from the British Army Training Unit Kenya (BATUK) who were tested positive for cocaine”.
However, BATUK, led by Brigadier Lucinda Caryl Westerman, Chief of the British Defense Staff, East Africa, denies that its soldiers caused the fire.
Green light for trial after diplomatic immunity waived
He also claimed that they were protected from prosecution by diplomatic immunity in any event. But Judge Antonina Bore has now rejected that argument and given the green light for the trial to continue.
She ruled that the British government “waived diplomatic immunity” from civil suits when it signed an agreement in 2015 governing the terms under which its soldiers would be allowed to operate in Kenya.
The judge said that under the terms of the agreement “it is evident that Kenya would have jurisdiction over civil claims and liabilities arising from activities in its territory under the agreement, while the UK would have jurisdiction over claims and civil liabilities arising from activities in its territory.
“The allegation in the petition is that British soldiers caused a huge fire at the military training grounds at Lolldaiga, which is in Kenya. Kenya therefore has jurisdiction,” she said.
Judge Bore ordered that the ACCPA and the local residents’ group must now go through a dispute resolution process in a bid to agree terms with the UK government.
If an agreement cannot be reached, the case will return to be tried by the Kenyan courts.