British jets 'may be used on Timor rebels': Controversy surrounds the sale by BAe of Hawk military aircraft to Indonesia

BRITISH Aerospace (BAe) was at the centre of an arms controversy last night after announcing it had won a pounds 500m order to supply Hawk military aircraft to Indonesia. Critics immediately warned that the aircraft could be used by the Indonesian armed forces against insurgents in East Timor.

Although the 24 Hawks being supplied by BAe to Indonesia are trainer versions, they can be used as light strike aircraft. A spokesman for BAe Defence said in Paris yesterday that it had sought and obtained assurances from the Indonesian government that the aircraft would not be used in an offensive role against the rebels. John Major, told the Commons yesterday that the Indonesian order demonstrated 'the excellence of the British defence industry'.

However, the controversy could turn into a repeat of a previous row over Hawk trainers in which Mr Major was involved. When he was foreign secretary in 1989, he argued that the aircraft should not be sold to Iraq, because they could be used against Kurdish insurgents. Despite support for the deal from the Defence Ministry and the Department of Trade, his view prevailed. Carmel Budjiardo, of Tapol, a group which campaigns for East Timor, said Indonesia's seizure of the former Portuguese colony in 1975 had served as a precedent for Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. Unlike Iraq, Indonesia had gone unpunished.

News of the sale comes shortly after Xanana Gusmao, leader of the East Timorese independence movement, was jailed for life following a trial widely condemned as unfair. Yesterday President Mario Soares of Portugal awarded Mr Gusmao the Order of Liberty, one of Portugal's top honours, and hailed him as a hero.

The deal will help to safeguard jobs at BAe plants in Lancashire and on Humberside, and brings the number of Hawks in service or on delivery to more than 700.

Indonesia operates 20 Hawk Mk53s, bought in the early 1980s for advanced flying training and tactical training. The latest contract follows an agreement signed in 1991 between BAe and the Indonesian aerospace company IPTN to collaborate on Hawk production, and a memorandum of understanding between the British and Indonesian governments signed last year.

Paris Air Show, page 29

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