Aitken helped give `green light' to deal

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The Independent Online
Jonathan Aitken, the cabinet minister at the centre of allegations about his business life, personally helped to give the "green light'' to an Anglo-Lebanese arms deal involving one of his own former partners, it was stated yesterday.

Fouad Makhzoumi, in an interview with the Independent, insisted that there was nothing improper about the meeting held at the Ministry of Defence in 1992, which was also attended by defence officials. At the time, Mr Aitken was Minister for Defence Procurement and had recently stepped down from his role as a non-executive director of one of Mr Makhzoumi's companies, Future Management Services.

Mr Makhzoumi said that at the time he was anxious to rebuild links between Britain and the Lebanon and asked Mr Aitken, whom he had known for some years, to assist in setting up an arms deal. Mr Aitken directed him towards defence ministry officials and after talks, a final meeting with Mr Aitken was held at which, Mr Makhzoumi says, the "green light'' was given to the deal. In a statement earlier this month Mr Aitken said that, after initial contacts, he had handed the matter over to the ministry and thereafter not participated directly in negotiations with the Makhzoumis.

In his interview, Mr Makhzoumi said that he had decided to attempt what he called a "rapprochement" between the two countries and asked Lebanon's paramilitary Internal Security Forces what military equipment they required before first raising the matter with Mr Aitken.

"So I approached Jonathan and I said, `How can we help the British government to try to reach these objectives?' He said: `Fouad, of course, we as a government would always appreciate and welcome any assistance that can be given to help the British government and to help British industry. But you see as a minister, I can only direct you and put you on the right track and really the best people that can help ... you are a very specific organisation at the Ministry of Defence called DESO [the Defence Export Sales Organisation] ... these are the people who know what is allowed, what is not allowed and how the system should work."

Mr Makhzoumi, who described some of the officials he met as "junior clerks", subsequently sought his meeting with Mr Aitken at the ministry. "We had taken several steps with Defence Export Sales Organisation people before we had this meeting," he said. "They needed the green light to proceed in order to get things moving." In addition to Mr Aitken, the meeting was attended by the minister's private secretary "who was taking notes", and by a DESO official whom he identified as Richard Jones.

According to Mr Makhzoumi, the initial approach to Mr Aitken had also led to a series of meetings between British and Lebanese military attachs at their respective embassies in Beirut and London in late 1992.

As a result of the talks, the British government agreed, according to Mr Makhzoumi, to sell "four or five" second-hand customs and excise vessels to the smuggling along the Lebanese coast, as well as three thousand second- hand self-loading rifles - 1,000 of them free of charge, the remaining 2,000 at pounds £80 a rifle - which are due to arrive in Beirut this week.

Mr Makhzoumi says that he himself made no money out of the government- to-government transaction and that Mr Aitken, who resigned from his directorships in Makhzoumi companies when he became minister, did not stand to make any personal gain. Mr Makhzoumi agreed that his companies might gain long-term benefit from the small-scale arms deal, but only if it was followed up by further sales in which his companies could be used in vehicle maintenance and security logistics.

Mr Aitken's statement, made on 10th April in response to allegations by the Guardian and World in Action, said: "I was approached in late 1992 by the Makhzoumi brothers, who have been longstanding personal friends and former banking clients of mine, asking about defence sales possibilities in Lebanon.

`As the minister responsible for defence exports, i acted entirely correctly by turning the whole matter over to Ministry of Defence officials within the Defence Exports Sales Organisation. `I believe that MoD records will show clearly that i acted with scrupulous propriety, both by reporting any former relevant banking connection with the Makhzoumis to officials and by thereafter not participating directly in negotians with the Makhzoumis on this matter (which was very small in the scale of defence exports)."

In a statement made through a spokesman Mr Aitken said yesterday that he had "nothing to add or subtract" from the statement he made on 10th April. "The statement was not made off the top of the head. All meetings were attended by MoD officials who made copious notes. These were checked. As far as we are concern the matter is entirely clear."