Row over CIA 'torture' flights engulfs Blair

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Tony Blair and Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, were under pressure last night to refute convincingly claims that Britain has been complicit in alleged use of CIA planes to take suspected terrorists for torture in secret camps abroad.

Sir Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrat deputy leader, has accused the Government of conducting a "hear no evil, see no evil" policy on renditions, after repeated denials that Britain is colluding in transporting prisoners to countries where torture is reputedly widespread. But there are signs that the Government's attempt to keep free of the controversy are becoming untenable, amid calls from MPs, human rights groups and European bodies for an in-depth investigation.

The Foreign Secretary revealed on Monday for the first time that he had agreed as Home Secretary to rendition for two flights from the UK to the US under the Clinton administration on the grounds that the suspects were to stand trial. He refused a third, he said, because he was not satisfied about the arrangements for sending the suspect to a third country.

Yesterday, under cross-examination by the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Commons about rendition, Mr Straw said there could be a fourth case. He said that the Home Office was still checking the records.

The Foreign Secretary's own integrity is not on the line, but the approach of the Government as a whole has been brought under severe question by the affair. Last week, challenged by Charles Kennedy at Prime Minister's Questions about the CIA flights, Mr Blair said: "I don't know what you are referring to."

Yesterday Mr Straw said: "Unless we all start to believe in conspiracy theories and that the officials are lying, I'm lying and that behind this there is some kind of secret state in league with some dark forces in the US, and we believe Secretary [of State Condoleezza] Rice is lying, there is simply no truth in claims that the UK has been involved in rendition."

But the Government's attempts to minimise the issue are being treated with scepticism. An all-party group of MPs on rendition last night published the legal opinion of James Crawford, Whewell professor of international law at the University of Cambridge, warning the Government that it could not rely on received assurances from the US Secretary of State to avoid it being accused of breaking its international obligations to stop prisoners being sent for torture.

He said Ms Rice's statement that the US "does not transport and has not transported detainees from one country to another for the purpose of interrogation using torture" did "not bring complete assurance that the practice is not occurring". Andrew Tyrie, the Conservative chairman of the group, said: "It is crystal clear the UK must investigate allegations it has been complicit in torture. Checking for instances of the US requesting permission [to land planes in the UK] is simply derisory."

Plane spotters in the UK have provided photographic evidence of CIA flights landing and taking off. Yesterday, a Transport minister told Sir Menzies that they did not take records of civil flights that may stop in the UK for refuelling. The question put by Sir Menzies had specifically identified Gulfstream 5 N379P, a private jet allegedly operated by a CIA front company, which carried, it is claimed, Saad Madni, a suspected terrorist, for questioning. Last night, the Government's critics said the CIA flights were using private jets to avoid international obligations under the Chicago Convention to ask for permission for the flights.

Sir Menzies said it was still possible that rendition flights were still happening. "I am pretty certain it is not enough for the Government to have a kind of hear no evil, see no evil policy."

Europe's leading human rights watchdog said that evidence gathered in an investigation into claims that the US illegally held detainees in several European countries has "reinforced the credibility of the allegations". Dick Marty, a Swiss parliamentarian conducting an inquiry for the Council of Europe, said he had unearthed "clues" that Poland and Romania were implicated, perhaps unwittingly. Both countries have denied any involvement. "Based on what I have been able to learn, currently, there are no secret detainees held by the US in Europe," said Mr Marty, speaking in Paris. "To my knowledge, those detainees were moved about a month ago, maybe a little more."

Many observers believe the lack of pressure from European governments shows that several may have been made aware of what was taking place. One diplomat argued: "This row is not being fuelled by the governments in Europe. It is being led by the media and public opinion."