Pressure builds over rendition flights in UK

From The Guardian (22.02.2006)

The foreign secretary, Jack Straw, today again denied the government had any knowledge of CIA “extraordinary rendition” flights, after it was revealed last night that the suspected planes involved had flown through UK airspace around 200 times in the past five years.

The row over possible British government collusion in the controversial US practice re-erupted last night after Channel Four news revealed new figures from the National Air Traffic Service relating to the aircraft thought to be involved.

Questioned about the figures today, Mr Straw insisted Britain had no knowledge of any such flights. And he said he had no reason to believe they were taking place without the government’s knowledge.

Speaking at the Foreign Office, Mr Straw said: “We know of no occasion where there has been a rendition through UK territory, or indeed over UK territory, nor do we have any reason to believe that such flights have taken place without our knowledge.”

That is a line that has been used by the prime minister, Tony Blair, at press conferences when the subject has come up.

Now the Liberal Democrats are pressing for the parliamentary watchdog, the parliamentary ombudsman, to force government ministers to give more details about the flights.

That threat comes after the acting Lib Dem leader, Sir Menzies Campbell, was told that a written question to the armed forces minister, Adam Ingram, requesting to know how many times planes had used UK military bases en route to or from countries suspected of using torture had been rejected, because “the information is not recorded centrally and could be provided only at a disproportionate cost”.

There have been claims that hundreds of secret CIA flights have used British airports and airspace to transfer terror suspects to third countries where they may be tortured, in the practice known as “extraordinary rendition”.

The US secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, has admitted that suspects are flown abroad for interrogation, but has denied that torture is involved.

Mr Straw last month told Mps that the government knew of only four requests for the transfer of detainees via the UK, all of which pre-dated the September 11 terror attacks in 2001 and two of which were refused.

Nick Clegg, the Lib Dem foreign affairs spokesman, said of the new figures: “Frankly that flies in the face of the answer we received from the government that only two or three cases of rendition ever took place.”

Mr Clegg added: “It begs many, many questions. We don’t have the answers yet and the most important issue that needs to be clarified now is what does the British government know about what these CIA flights are up to.”

Neil Durkin, of Amnesty International, said evidence gathered by the organisation from flight records in the US links the some of the planes to incidents where torture has taken place.

“What we want to see is the UK government allowing a full public investigation into any complicity with rendition flights,” he said.

The Commons foreign affairs select committee will tomorrow produce its annual human rights report, which will include its preliminary findings on extraordinary rendition and evidence obtained under torture.

Labour chairman Mike Gapes said: “The bottom line is that we have not had the full story, the full facts.

“My select committee has been pursuing this for some time and gradually, bit by bit, we get more and more pieces of the jigsaw but we haven’t got the whole picture yet.”