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ACCUSING A BRITISH WAR HERO OF MISDEEDS

An Army Reserve major from Eden is at the center of a burgeoning international controversy, having accused a war-hero British officer of criminal misconduct during the conflict in Iraq.

The British press has turned on Maj. Re Biastre, questioning why he made the accusations against their freshly crowned national hero.

But Biastre's wife, co-workers and neighbors say the Lake Shore High School guidance counselor and part-time Eden police officer would not make up such accusations and is simply doing what's right.

"That's a characteristic of his personality, that if he was informed of some wrongdoing, he would bring it to someone's attention," said Debbie Biastre, who spoke to The Buffalo News on Sunday night.

Biastre, a member of the 402nd Civil Affairs Battalion attached to the British army in southern Iraq, has accused British Lt. Col. Tim Collins of brutalizing Iraqi civilians and abusing his authority during the Iraq war.

Those accusations are making headlines in Britain, where Collins has achieved near-mythic status, thanks to a blunt and eloquent speech he gave to 800 members of his brigade just before the first shots of the war were fired.

"If you are ferocious in battle, remember to be magnanimous in victory," Collins said in the widely reported March 19 speech. His words drew praise from Prince Charles and reportedly so impressed President Bush that a framed copy of the remarks hangs in the Oval Office.

Now back home in England and awaiting the conclusion of an official investigation, Collins has denied the accusations, according to British newspaper reports.

"Ten weeks ago he was being feted as a national hero. Now Colonel Tim Collins is engulfed in a maelstrom of claims (that) threaten to destroy his career, name and character," the Sunday Telegraph of London reported.

Collins' supporters contend that Biastre is trying to get back at Collins, known as "Nails" for his toughness, because the two butted heads during the war. In fact, many British newspapers have focused their criticisms on Biastre, not Collins.

"What a way to treat a hero," cried the front page of the Daily Mirror, a British tabloid.

Biastre, 37, remains overseas with his battalion. Debbie Biastre, a science teacher at Eden High School, said her husband's unit was involved intensely in the fighting in Iraq.

His was one of five teams that went into Iraq during the first night of the war, Debbie Biastre said, and the members of the Reserve battalion from the Town of Tonawanda frequently came under fire.

"I've had several conversations with him (by satellite phone) where you could hear mortar fire in the background," she said.

Biastre accuses Collins of pistol-whipping and shooting at the feet of Iraqi civilian leaders during interrogations, and shooting at the tires of vehicles that did not pose a threat, according to London's Daily Telegraph newspaper. Biastre did not witness the incidents firsthand but did report them to military authorities.

The Daily Telegraph quotes unnamed members of the British Ministry of Defense as saying the investigation has not turned up evidence Collins did anything wrong.

"It was a war. Tim acted robustly, but he insists he did everything by the rule book," one Collins colleague told the Daily Telegraph.

Biastre's testimony goes beyond accusations against Collins to paint a picture of British officers who opposed the war, disliked Bush and was disdainful of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, British newspapers report.

Biastre testified that British officers called Bush a "cowboy" and said Blair was Bush's "puppet," according to the Sunday Telegraph's account of Biastre's 2,390-word testimony. He said that anti-American hostility was "intense," the paper reported.

Associates of Collins say Biastre was probably trying to get revenge on Collins, who had Biastre arrested for insubordination during the war, according to the Sunday Telegraph.

Collins became infuriated when Biastre continued to hand out candy to Iraqi children after the British colonel ordered a stop to that practice, according to witnesses quoted by another British newspaper, the Sun.

That does not make sense because, Debbie Biastre said, "he has nothing to gain" by reporting Collins.

R. Terrence Redman, the Lake Shore High School principal, doubts that Biastre accused Collins to pay him back for their earlier run-in. "That would surprise me greatly that he would make up or fabricate a story in order to be vindictive or bring somebody else down," Redman said.

But the principal said he can imagine Biastre -- whose battalion received care packages from Lake Shore students -- handing out candy or food to Iraqis. "If you're a guidance counselor, you have to have a caring, compassionate component to you," Redman said.

In fact, Biastre took the time to write to Eden School Superintendent Robert E. Zimmerman to thank the students of Eden Central High School for sending a care package to his unit.

"We live day to day and try not to think about home too much but the package and card focused us on what we're doing in this country and that there are Americans behind us every step of the way," Biastre wrote in the April 20 letter.

Eden Police Chief Pat Howard, for whom Biastre worked for 1 1/2 years as a part-time traffic officer before leaving for active military duty in November, said Biastre respects the chain of command.

"No matter what, I feel bad for both of them. For this Col. Collins and for Re. . . . It's too bad something happened that came to this," Howard said.

The last few days have brought swarms of reporters from England and elsewhere to Eden, ever since Biastre was identified as the accuser.

Out-of-town reporters have made phone calls or in-person visits to Lake Shore High School, the Eden Police Department, Biastre's neighbors and his wife seeking information about the reservist.

Four British reporters have knocked on Debbie Biastre's door, she said, with one British tabloid hiring a private investigator to track her down. She said she has turned them all away.

She said she gets frustrated reading the Web sites of British tabloids, which she said are riddled with misinformation. She just hopes for a thorough British military investigation -- whatever its findings.

"I think we're both very strong people, and we've been able to deal with it so far," Debbie Biastre said.

e-mail: swatson@buffnews.com

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