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Inside File: Pinochet's shopping spree gets green light in Britain

NOWHERE can General Augusto Pinochet have felt more welcome during his extended arms shopping spree across Europe over the past few weeks than in Britain. Contrast, for instance, the comment of the Foreign Minister of Switzerland last week, who said he was 'very uncomfortable' about the general's 'private visit' and expressed regret that no measures could be taken to expel him.

Here, British Aerospace executives marvelled at the continuing support they enjoyed from Her Majesty's Government over sales to Chile; and many who used to be leading voices in the anti-Pinochet campaign did not even know he was here.

Jeremy Corbyn MP, after learning of the General's visit this week, said he planned to put a few questions to the Foreign Secretary today. 'I shall be asking how it is that such a man was allowed to visit Britain, and how much money was spent on his protection. He is the second most evil man of the century, after Hitler. He is responsible for the deaths of 50,000 civilians.'

It is 21 years since General Pinochet began his rule by torture. Chile now has a civilian government, but the General remains the head of the Chilean armed forces and as such gets to travel around buying weapons for his country. The Royal Ordnance division of BAe held talks with him on Tuesday to discuss 'Rayo', a planned multiple-launch rocket system that is a recurring theme dear to the General's heart.

It was not their first meeting. Talks on Rayo have been going on for four years. If the system is built, the contract 'would run into certainly millions, and potentially tens of millions of pounds', said a BAe official. 'Pinochet is the armed forces chief and as such he is the man we speak to. We have the British government's support on arms sales to Chile. As you know, we operate within the rules of the Government, and those rules are even more tightly observed these days. So long as we have the blessing and support of the Government, it is potentially very good business for us.'

General Pinochet has always been popular with the right-wing in Britain. Baroness Thatcher dined with him in March after recovering from her fainting spell in the Santiago heat. When Alan Clark, as trade minister, visited Chile seven years ago, he recorded in his diary an account of a spat among Chileans 'about who 'denounced' whose sister during the period of military rule. Frankly, I'd have put them all under arrest as they left the building. I might say that to Pinochet, if I get to see him (tomorrow).'

General Pinochet slipped in and out of Britain with little public notice. But three weeks ago in Amsterdam he was told by staff at the Amstel hotel that his security could not be guaranteed. A week later in Prague, Jan Urban pointed out that 'there is no justification for dealing with this man. It is one thing to be involved in the arms trade. It is quite another to sell to Pinochet'.

British ministers would argue there is no choice. General Pinochet made a deal before handing over power that he would remain as head of the armed forces, and with it the platform of jetting around buying arms. Britain's arms industry accounts for 9 per cent of the manufacturing GDP; 400,000 people depend on it for work; it must sell to whomever it can. Or must it?

Mr Corbyn says: 'It is time we started using the skills of arms manufacturing workers to make civilian goods. We'll never be able to be critical of human rights violations around the world if we have to sell arms to these countries all the time.' Some hold that view to be naive. As a British ambassador to a massive arms importing nation put it recently: 'Morality in foreign policy may be a priority. But it is not the priority.'