RAF angry at exclusion from patients' rescue: Christopher Bellamy reports on a clash over the cost of providing a jet

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The Independent Online
DEFENCE chiefs were livid last night at the decision to fly sick Bosnians to Britain in a chartered civilian aircraft rather than using an RAF aircraft.

They said an RAF VC-10 could have been made available more cheaply, were it not for Treasury accounting rules that say a 'market rate' must be charged.

The MoD said last night it had not been asked to provide an aircraft. 'The first we knew about it was when we saw it on Ceefax', a senior military source said.

RAF sources said they were keen to use their aircraft for useful work of this type, especially as it was valuable training for the crews.

The Overseas Development Administration and the MoD first clashed in August during Operation Irma, with senior RAF officers accusing the ODA of a publicity stunt and a 'lash-up job' - tying stretchers to the seats of a chartered Russian jet when the RAF had VC- 10s available which are fitted as flying hospitals as a matter of routine, and which regularly transfer seriously-ill patients from bases abroad.

Yesterday there was fresh conflict, this time with the UN International Organisation for Migrants. The ODA said it was not involved at all, and the UN IOM request came through the Foreign Office. An MoD spokesman said: 'If we had been asked we would have quoted a price. But we weren't'

Three Royal Navy Sea King helicopters had flown 48 patients from Tuzla and Visoko in Bosnia to Split on Saturday and Sunday, while another 22 patients and 22 relatives had been driven to the Adriatic port in armoured vehicles from Mostar.

From Split, which is still in the theatre of operations, they were flown in RAF Hercules aircraft to Ancona in northern Italy. The Hercules is unpressurised and is therefore unsuitable for the speedy, high-altitude transport of patients, and they were transferred to a BAe-111 jet of Air Bristol. The Hercules and the medically-equipped VC-10 would have been compatible, enabling stretchers to be slid from one to the other.

The choice of a civilian charter in preference to the RAF has once again ruffled feathers in all three services, not just the RAF. 'The remarks were unprintable,' Hugh Hanning, of the Fontmell group, an international lobby of experts on disaster relief, said.

During Operation Irma, a similar airlift in August, a senior RAF officer said the RAF could easily have undercut any charter rate, maybe charging the user - then the ODA, now the UN IOM - the cost of the fuel. But it appears that once again the experts were not asked.