THE Foreign Office has been accused of misleading parliament over the evidence it holds about the use a British airbase in the “extraordinary rendition” of terror suspects.
|Abdelhakim Belhadj head of the Tripoli Military Council in the post revolutionary Libyan government|
By Jason Lewis, Investigations Editor
The department has previously said that it had no information about whether the British base at Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean was used as a key staging post for the CIA programme.
Classified documents revealed by the Sunday Telegraph earlier this year showed how British intelligence officials provided key intelligence and support for the transfer of terrorists for interrogation in Libya.
The claims centred on MI6’s role in the rendition of Abdelhakim Belhadj, a leading opponent of Col Muammar Gaddafi and then terrorist suspect, to Tripoli in March 2004, where he faced imprisonment and alleged torture.
Mr Belhadj, who is now a leading candidate in the upcoming elections in Libya, was seized in Bangkok and put on a flight which, according to the CIA flight schedule, was due to refuel in Diego Garcia, a British sovereign territory, before flying to Libya.
|Flight Plan: CIA planned to use Diego Garcia airbase|
But now, in a letter to Andrew Tyrie, the chairman of the All Party Group on Rendition, who asked for the records in House of Commons questions in January, the Foreign Office has admitted that, despite its earlier claims, records of flights to the island at the time do exist.
The letter from Henry Bellingham, the Foreign Office Minister responsible, confirmed the department had now located “General declarations made by arriving flights.”
He added: “These include details of owner/operator; marks of registration and nationality; flight number; date; departed from; crew numbers and sometimes names; sometimes the number of passengers but never the names.
But Mr Bellingham refused to discuss if detail of the alleged rendition was recorded in this paper work.
He wrote: “As you will be aware, since tabling your questions, the Commissioner for the British Indian Ocean Territory has been placed on notice of possible legal action...relating to allegations of rendition operations.
“Unfortunately, this means that at this time I am still unable to respond substantively to your question.”
The letter is the second time Ministers have had to admit they misled Parliament over Britain’s role in rendition.
In 2008 David Miliband, then foreign secretary, told the Commons that Diego Garcia, which campaigners claim was used as a “black site” terrorist detention centre by the Americans, had been used twice during rendition operations. He said both instances had happened in 2002 and without Britain’s knowledge.
He apologised to MPs for incorrect information previously given by his predecessor, Jack Straw, and former Prime Minister Tony Blair, who insisted it had never been used by the flights.
David Lidington, the Europe minister in the current government, reiterated the statement in a parliamentary answer last year.
Last night Andrew Tyrie, said: “Yet again we are in the position of a Minister having to correct what has been said in the past on Britain’s involvement in rendition. It is now time that there was a thorough inquiry into what role Britain played in this.”
The intelligence documents revealed by this newspaper earlier this year appeared to confirm that Britain played an active role in Mr Belhadj’s detention in 2004 and transfer to Gaddafi’s regime.
They suggests the British were the first to alert Libya that Mr Belhadj, who was wanted as head of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), a terrorist group outlawed by the UN over alleged links to al-Qaeda, was in custody.
It disclosed that Mr Belhadj and his pregnant wife were being held. Four days later, the Libyans were contacted by the CIA who said: “Our service is committed to rendering the terrorist … to your custody.”
Days later another secret memo, sent by the CIA, gave full breakdown of the plan to transfer him to Libya and included details of the flight plan and its scheduled refuelling stop in Diego Garcia.