Britain risks row over jets sale to Indonesia

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The Independent Online

The British government yesterday approved the controversial pounds 500m sale of fighter aircraft to Indonesia, a deal that was first signed in 1993.

The Government argued that it was "not likely" the Hawk fighter planes sold by British Aerospace would be used against opponents of the Indonesian regime, especially in East Timor. In a written parliamentary answer, a trade minister, Anthony Nelson, said Indonesia "has given assurances" the aircraft "will not be used for internal security or against civilians in any part of Indonesia or East Timor".

Activists who have campaigned against the sale will remain sceptical on that point.

Indonesia's human rights record in East Timor, a former Portuguese colony it seized 20 years ago, has long been the object of international condemnation. There has been little sign of a softening of Indonesia's position. In 1992 the United States suspended a sale of F-16 fighters to Indonesia in protest against human rights violations.

In the meantime, closer links with Indonesia have proved an alluring option for Western countries. Australia this week signed a deal to strengthen defence ties, a deal described by one East Timor activist as "a treaty between God and the devil". British officials yesterday insisted the timing of the new Australian treaty and the authorisation of the British sale was "purely coincidental".

Mr Nelson said the decision to authorise the sale of the fighters had been taken after consultation with the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign Office, following "established internationally agreed criteria for military exports". This process of consultation took two years, officials said.

Mr Nelson noted that it was customary not to disclose the details of the approval of individual export licences. In this case, however, an exception was being made: "I consider the public interest outweighs the need for confidentiality."

It is possible Britain was accelerated by a perception that America's position on Indonesia is softening. The US is said to be considering the renewal of aircraft sales to Jakarta.

Earlier this year, Alastair Goodlad, a Foreign Office minister, met one of the main leaders of the East Timorese independence movement in what was understood to be an indication that Britain was ready to be more critical of Indonesia's behaviour.

In spite of the meeting, as the latest announcement makes clear, pounds 500m is not to be sniffed at. The sale includes 24 Hawk trainers and ground- attack fighters.