The British army allowed its soldiers to shoot unarmed civilians in Iraq and Afganistan, a report by the London-based Middle East Eye news website has revealed.

The report’s author, Ian Cobain, interviewed several former British army soldiers, who confirmed they were given orders to shoot at civilians suspected of surveilling them.

This was permitted under the premise that unarmed civilians were suspected of planting roadside bombs or acting as spotters (also known as “dickers” in British army slang) for armed fighters.

Yet soldiers would shoot at civilians without verifying if they posed a threat or were going about their everyday business, especially since most of the shootings would be carried out during night-time patrols.

The report said a soldier in southern Iraq claimed he and fellow troops were told they were allowed to shoot anyone who acted suspiciously.

This relaxing of the rules of engagement led to “a killing spree”, according to one former soldier, who said he and his fellow forces were promised they would be protected if there were an investigation by the military police.

“Our commanders, they would tell us: ‘We will protect you if any investigation comes. Just say you genuinely thought your life was at risk – those words will protect you,'” the former soldier told the Middle East Eye.

Another former soldier, who served in Basra in 2007, said that he “had never seen such lawlessness”.

“We were shooting old men, young men,” he said. “Anyone you deem is a terrorist, you shoot them.”

“But how could we know if they were a threat? Not all of them were dickers, some were just holding phones.”

In one case, the former soldiers interviewed said they witnessed a cover-up after Soviet-era weapons were planted beside the bodies of two unarmed teenage boys killed by British troops in Afghanistan to make it appear like they were Taliban fighters.

Another ex-soldier said he saw similar guns, known as “drop weapons”, being put away at other British bases. “I’m fairly sure that they were being kept for that purpose,” he said.

According to experts in military law, the report said, shooting “dickers” is not considered illegal, as long as they are actually engaged in hostilities. Even then, civilians are expected to be given the benefit of the doubt.