RAF protest at choice of Russian jet

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The Independent Online
THE USE of a chartered Russian aircraft instead of a fully equipped RAF VC-10 for the Sarajevo relief operation led to recriminations between government departments yesterday.

What should have been a unifying exercise between the Ministry of Defence, the Overseas Development Administration and the Department of Health ended with officials in the MoD accusing the ODA of using the exercise as a publicity stunt.

The bright blue overalls of ODA personnel on the Russian aircraft at Stansted airport, with Union Flags and ODA insignia on the back and the aircraft fuselage, did little to smooth the RAF's ruffled feathers.

An MoD spokesman would only say that the RAF offered a VC-10 and that 'they (the ODA) turned it down'. But RAF officers who saw the Russian aircraft were appalled, describing it as a 'lash-up job'.

The VC-10 has fittings compatible with the RAF Hercules being used to bring the casualties out of the besieged city to Ancona in Italy, so stretcher patients can be transferred swiftly.

Only the propeller-driven Hercules, equipped to fly into the war zone and able to land and take off in a short distance, is suitable to bring patients out of Sarajevo. But it is slow and not particularly comfortable and the plan is to transfer wounded to a large jet at Ancona. The ODA chartered the Russian aircraft, a Tupolev-154, and yesterday stretchers were being lashed to seats with plastic cord.

Sources told the Independent the ODA did not even approach the RAF for a jet - normally the first organisation it would ask. The ODA said the RAF's offer had come too late and was not costed, which RAF sources said was untrue.

Tony Bearpark, head of emergency aid and information at the ODA, said: 'The normal thing is for the RAF to do the Sarajevo leg. We evacuated Irma Hadzimuratovic on Monday and we did an airlift from Banja Luka last year.'

'All options are considered but we were well down the path of the Russian option when the VC-10 offer was made.'

The RAF aircraft would almost certainly have been cheaper. Treasury rules oblige the MoD to bill the ODA for the use of a plane but they would defray as much of the cost as possible, maybe just charging ODA for the fuel. 'We would have certainly undercut any charter rate,' said an MoD source.

Besides cost, RAF sources said the VC-10 also won on patient care. The RAF regularly uses its specially fitted planes to fly out seriously ill servicemen and their families from stations abroad.

'We do it routinely every day of the year. RAF medical teams are all specialists in this type of operation and are highly trained in medical evacuation.'