U.S. assures UK over secret flights, doubts persist

LONDON (Reuters) - Britain has received new U.S. assurances that the CIA did not secretly smuggle terrorist suspects through its territory, but critics said on Thursday the government had failed to ask Washington the right questions.

An Air Force B-52 bomber takes off from Diego Garcia for a mission October 22, 2001. REUTERS/U.S. Air Force/Shane Cuomo

Foreign Secretary David Miliband sought the assurances after being embarrassed in February by revelations that two U.S. planes carrying terrorism suspects on so-called rendition flights had landed and refueled in 2002 at a U.S. base on the British Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia.

Miliband said on Thursday Britain had asked the United States to check nearly 400 other flights about which members of parliament, rights campaigners and others had raised concerns.

“The United States government confirmed that, with the exception of two cases related to Diego Garcia in 2002, there have been no other instances in which U.S. intelligence flights landed in the United Kingdom, our Overseas Territories, or the Crown Dependencies, with a detainee on board since 11 September 2001,” Miliband said in a written statement to parliament.

Rights groups contend that rendition -- the abduction and secret delivery of individuals to countries where they may be subject to torture -- is illegal under international law.

The United States acknowledges it has conducted secret transfers but denies torturing suspects or handing them to countries that do. It has also confirmed it held some detainees at secret overseas prisons.

Andrew Tyrie, an opposition Conservative politician who heads an all-parliamentary group on rendition, said the government had failed to seek answers from Washington on whether flights had passed through British airports on the way to or from a rendition.

“Providing assistance to a plane on the way to or from a rendition could constitute complicity in any subsequent torture of the detainee. Yet despite my requests, the government persists in refusing to ask questions of the U.S. on this issue,” Tyrie said in a news release.

Reprieve, a legal charity that represents rendition victims, said Britain had “accepted implausible U.S. assurances at face value” and failed to even ask Washington the names of those transferred through Diego Garcia.

“The sadly cynical reason for this is obvious: the British government is hoping not to become further embroiled in a scandal in which it is complicit,” it said in a statement.

Miliband said Washington had agreed it would not carry out any future renditions through British territory without permission, and this would only be granted “if we were satisfied that the rendition would accord with UK law and our international obligations”.

Reporting by Mark Trevelyan; editing by Andrew Dobbie