CIA 'covert flights' mar Rice's German visit

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Damaging revelations about the scale of covert CIA flights allegedly used to transport Islamic terrorist suspects throughout Europe will overshadow a visit by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to Germany on Tuesday for talks aimed at achieving a rapprochement between Washington and Berlin.

A potentially explosive report in Germany's Der Spiegel magazine disclosed yesterday that German air traffic controllers had handed Chancellor Angela Merkel's government a list of 437 flights suspected of being operated by the CIA in German air space.

The magazine said the CIA had used planes registered as private aircraft and that two alone accounted for 137 and 146 uses of airspace or landings in 2002 and 2003 at airfields in Berlin, Frankfurt and the American military airbase at Ramstein. "Such planes could be used to transfer presumed terrorists and place them in secret locations," Der Spiegel said.

The list of suspected CIA flights was handed to Mrs Merkel's government at the request of Germany's radical Left party. Although it provided no proof that the planes were used to transport suspected Islamic militants, the issue was expected to dominate talks between Ms Rice and the newly elected Chancellor.

Mrs Merkel has declared that improving the German-American relationship, soured by her predecessor's outright opposition to the Iraq war, is one of her coalition government's main foreign policy objectives.

The covert CIA practice known as "extraordinary rendition" is used to interrogate terrorist suspects outside the US, where they are not subject to American legal protection. Earlier this year, the US authorities indirectly confirmed that they had kidnapped a Lebanese-born German citizen named Kahled el-Masri and taken him for interrogation in Afghanistan before eventually freeing him.

More recently the Washington Post reported on the existence of alleged secret CIA interrogation jails in eight countries with Romania and Poland singled out as the chief suspects in eastern Europe. Both countries deny the allegations.

German government officials were yesterday at pains to stress that the flight list gave no indication of what the suspected CIA aircraft were carrying. Wolfgang Bosbach, a senior conservative in Mrs Merkel's government said: "I assume that the German authorities were not informed about these alleged CIA prisoner flights. If they did know about them, this would amount to a massive infringement of the European Convention on Human Rights," he added.

However, the German section of Amnesty International insisted that the German authorities were aware of what the flights were being used for. "We have reported on these CIA kidnappings for some time, those responsible must have known about these flights," said Barbara Lochbihler, from Amnesty.

Ms Rice is scheduled to meet with Mrs Merkel and Franz-Walter Steinmeier, her foreign minister during her visit. All three politicians will be under pressure to answers the allegations.

Ms Rice has said that she will provide an answer to an EU letter of complaint on the issue complied by Jack Straw, the British Foreign Secretary. However, reports ahead of her visit suggested that she was in no mood to dwell on the issue.

One official involved in drafting her response in Washington was quoted in the Washington Post as saying: "The key point will be 'We're all in this together and you need to look at yourselves as much as us'. People in glass houses shouldn't throw stones."

Despite insisting that Germany continues to oppose sending its own troops to Iraq, Mrs Merkel faces an intractable dilemma over the fate of a Susanne Osthoff, a 43-year-old German archaeologist kidnapped by suspected Islamic militants in Iraq a fortnight ago.

Mrs Merkel joined senior German figures in issuing an urgent public appeal for Mrs Osthoff's release yesterday.