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Friday, March 17, 2006 

Rendition: Government finally admits to widespread use of UK airports by CIA jets.

It's taken months, but Alistair Darling today finally admitted that CIA jets have landed at UK airports much more frequently than the government has previously admitted to, and that one of the planes which landed here was the jet linked to the rendition of Abu Omar.

Six US planes linked by campaigners to "extraordinary rendition" used UK airports 73 times since 2001, Transport Secretary Alistair Darling has said.

The National Air Traffic Service has previously said there were 200 flights through British airspace in the past five years by the CIA planes associated by campaigners with rendition.

Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman Michael Moore asked Mr Darling for details of landings by six jets with the registration numbers N2189M, N8183J, N970SJ, N129QS, N368CE and N85VM.

In a written Parliamentary answer, Mr Darling confirmed the planes had landed respectively 10, 12, two, five, 20 and 24 times at UK airports since January 1 2001.

But he added: "None of the information held by my department provides evidence that these flights were involved in rendition.

"The British government is not aware of any cases of rendition through the UK since May 1997, apart from the two cases in 1998 about which the foreign secretary has informed Parliament."

The flights revealed by Mr Darling included one stopover on the way between the Afghan capital Kabul and Washington and others stopping on their way to destinations in the Middle East such as Amman in Jordan and Riyadh in Saudi Arabia.

Earlier this week, Mr Straw said claims the US has secretly flown terror suspects through the UK would eventually "fall away" due to lack of evidence.

The first thing worth noting is that this answer has been given on a day when the loans for peerages scandal is dominating the news. The second thing is that today is Friday, the end of the week and an excellent time to bury some news which exposes the government for not giving the full truth straight away when questioned. Parliament also isn't open for business on a Friday, as it's the day on which most MPs' hold their constituency surgeries.

Third then is the figures which Alistair Darling has given for the number of times the named jets have landed at UK airports. All the flights given as landing were published in the Guardian back in December, with figures given then for how many times they had landed, and at which airport. They are worth comparing. (click for larger versions.)

There's a huge discrepancy between the figures for N970SJ and N129QS, which can either be explained by mistakes by the Grauniad, the government not having the full figures or simply not knowing how many times in full the jets have visited UK airports. The Guardian seems to have under-estimated some of the figures, so their data is not complete either.
As Darling says, there is as of yet no proof that the flights which landed here actually contained prisoners being rendered, or to not use the jargon, kidnapped. What it does show is that the government or departments within the government could have been contacted a lot earlier as soon as these allegations arose to determine exactly how many CIA jets have passed through this country. Instead it has taken the government months, with frequent denials from both Jack Straw and Tony Blair that any flights have passed through UK airspace. It's quite possible that all the jets which have landed were here simply to refuel before going on to another country, without containing any prisoners or being involved in rendition full stop. What makes this seem highly unlikely is the way in which the information has not been forthcoming. Campaigners have had to shout and shout to get this data. Previous requests resulted in fob offs, saying that the information could only be provided at disproportionate cost. Condoleezza Rice has also more or less admitted to rendition flights taking place, while denying that the US uses torture.

The real questions now concern whether our security services have been complicit in these flights, and whether they have known about them from the beginning. I find it highly questionable that MI5 and 6 were not involved when nearly all intelligence is now pooled between the CIA and the European intelligence agencies. If they were not involved, did they know what was happening, and if so, were ministers informed? If not, why not? If they were, why has it taken so long for the government to admit to CIA jets using UK airports? Have they simply turned a blind eye, knowing full well that the US no longer asks anyone's permission to use their airspace? The Abu Omar rendition, which involved him being snatched from an Italian street, was carried out without informing the local government agencies. If they can kidnap foreign citizens without bothering to inform the local police, what hope is there that they would inform the UK government when they use our airspace and airports simply to refuel?

Once again, Labour has done the the tiniest amount of work which it has had had to in order to deflect criticism. While Jack Straw has time and again seemingly denied that rendition has occurred here, it seems they knew full well that jets suspected of being used in rendition have used UK airspace. What now needs to be answered is why they seem to be covering up for the US government when it may well be in breach of numerous sections of international law. If Jack Straw cannot, then he must resign.

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