Ministers 'knew about rendition flights'

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European governments, including Britain, knew about secret CIA flights across the continent, MEPs concluded yesterday, as they lambasted politicians and senior officials for failing to co-operate with an inquiry into secret US renditions.

Britain's former defence secretary Geoff Hoon, now minister for Europe, was criticised in a report which "deplored" the way he co-operated with a committee investigating claims that the CIA operated secret flights in the EU and set up covert prisons on European soil.

The EU's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, was also criticised and MEPs questioned the "real substance of the post of European Union counter-terrorism co-ordinator occupied by Gijs de Vries", drawing attention to his "lack of credibility". Overall the UK emerged as one of the countries which tolerated a significant number of "black flights" and failed to assist British citizens who were abducted in other countries.

The document, agreed yesterday, expressed "serious concern about the 170 stopovers made by CIA-operated aircraft at UK airports, which on many occasions came from or were bound for countries linked with extraordinary rendition circuits and the transfer of detainees". It deplored "the stopovers at UK airports of aircraft which have been shown to have been used by the CIA", on other occasions, for "extraordinary renditions".

The authors of the report also said they were outraged by the legal opinion of the Foreign Office adviser Michael Wood "according to which receiving or possessing information extracted under torture, as long as there is no direct participation in the torture, is not prohibited".

The year-long investigation into CIA activities has established enough circumstantial evidence to corroborate widespread reports of secret rendition, the report's authors say.

The committee set up to investigate the claims interviewed witnesses and obtained information from Eurocontrol, the EU's air safety agency, which revealed that more than 1,200 undeclared CIA flights entered European airspace after 11 September 2001.

The inquiry concluded: "It is implausible, on the basis of the testimonies and documents received, that certain European governments were not aware of the activities linked to extraordinary rendition on their territory". It was also "implausible that many hundreds of flights ...could have taken place without the knowledge of either the security services or the intelligence services".

Compiled by the Italian Socialist MEP Giovanni Fava, the report concluded that "in some cases, temporary secret detention facilities in European countries may have been located at US military bases".

Polish centre-right MEPs pushed through an amendment stating that the evidence gathered does not prove that CIA secret prisons were based in Poland, one of the allegations that prompted the investigation.

Baroness Ludford, justice spokeswoman for the Liberal Democrats in the European Parliament said: "Geoff Hoon's actions in failing to co-operate with this investigation, no doubt borne out of a sense of panic as he was Defence Secretary while many of these events took place, have rightly been censored in this report."

Claude Moraes, a member of the European Parliament's civil liberties, justice & home affairs committee, said the document had produced "compelling circumstantial evidence but no smoking gun".