SZCZYTNO, Poland (AP) – At midnight on an autumn night two years ago, a Boeing passenger plane with seven people carrying U.S. passports touched down at a little-used airport deep in the pine forests of northeastern Poland, officials said.
Confirmation of the mysterious arrival came after a human rights group said evidence pointed to Szczytno-Szymany airport as a CIA transfer site for al-Qaida prisoners.
Airport officials and border guards said the plane landed at the former military base Sept. 22, 2003 – the date Human Rights Watch said a Boeing 737 that was part of the prisoner-transfer scheme was at the airport. But authorities – including the airport’s former director – denied any knowledge of prisoner transfers.
New York City-based Human Rights Watch said the U.S. government may have used Sczytno-Szymany airport for secret transfers of terror suspects captured in Afghanistan, citing flight logs and unnamed sources. Polish government officials dismiss the report and U.S. officials have refused to confirm or deny the claims.
Polish border guards spokesman Maj. Roman Krzeminski said records show on Sept. 22, 2003 a plane landed at the airport carrying seven people with U.S. passports and took on board five other people with U.S. passports who were waiting at the airport and whose documents said they came to Poland on business. He said the plane spent about an hour at the airport before taking off.
Former airport director Mariola Przewloczka described the plane as a Boeing and said border guards drove out to meet the plane on the runway, instead of having the occupants enter the airport terminal.
“After the plane landed two vans drove out to meet it with border control officials,” said Przewloczka.
“The whole thing lasted a little over a half an hour.” But she and other officials said they did not know where the plane came from or where it went.
Several local residents said they had not noticed any unusual flights. “I didn’t see anything, nothing,” said Marek Wyrzykowski, a farm labourer who lives in a village next to the airport. “Taliban? There’s no Taliban here.”
Human Rights Watch said Thursday it has evidence indicating the CIA transported suspected terrorists captured in Afghanistan to Poland and Romania. The conclusion is based on an analysis of flight logs of CIA aircraft from 2001 to 2004 obtained by the group, said Mark Garlasco, a senior military analyst with the organization.
The U.S. government has been criticized by human rights groups for practising “extraordinary rendition” – sending suspected terrorists to foreign countries, where they are detained, interrogated and allegedly tortured.
Allegations the United States has operated secret prisons in Eastern Europe and elsewhere were published this week in the Washington Post newspaper, prompting a string of denials from governments in the former Soviet sphere. European Union officials, the Council of Europe – the continent’s top human rights organization – and the international Red Cross all said they would look into the issue.
European officials said such prisons would violate the continent’s human rights principles.
In Romania, aviation officials and the military denied Human Rights Watch allegations the Mihail Kogalniceanu Air Base may have been used by the CIA as a detention facility as well. The Kogalniceanu base, near the Black Sea port city Constanta, was used by the United States for troops and equipment during the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. The U.S. military evacuated its remaining forces in June 2003.
“When the Americans were here there were so many civilians working there, people would have found out about it,” Dan Buciuman, the base commander, said. Garlasco said one of the CIA flights was a Boeing 737 that in September 2003 flew from Washington to Kabul, Afghanistan, via Ruzyne in the Czech Republic and Tashkent, Uzbekistan, he said.
He said that plane then departed Afghanistan for Szczytno-Szymany Airport on Sept. 22, continued to Mihail Kogalniceanu Air Base and Sale, Morocco, and finally landed at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo, Cuba.
The Szczytno-Szymany Airport is in extensive forests outside the town Sczytno near Poland’s Masurian Lakes in northeastern Poland. It’s not an operating airport but planes can land if prior arrangement is made; only one small single-engined plane was parked there Friday and there were no takeoffs or landings.