EU concealed deal with US to allow 'rendition' flights

By Justin Stares in Brussels and Philip Sherwell in Washington
(Filed: 11/12/2005)

The European Union secretly allowed the United States to use transit facilities on European soil to transport "criminals" in 2003, according to a previously unpublished document. The revelation contradicts repeated EU denials that it knew of "rendition" flights by the CIA.

The EU agreed to give America access to facilities - presumably airports - in confidential talks in Athens during which the war on terror was discussed, the original minutes show. But all references to the agreement were deleted from the record before it was published.

The issue of "rendition" flights - in which terror suspects are flown to secret bases and third countries for interrogation - overshadowed last week's fence-mending visit to Europe by Condoleezza Rice, the US Secretary of State.

Asked in Parliament last week about reports of 400 suspect flights passing through British airports, Tony Blair said: "In respect of airports, I don't know what you are referring to."

The minutes of the Athens meeting on January 22, 2003, were written by the then Greek presidency of the EU after the talks with a US delegation headed by a justice department official. EU officials confirmed that a full account was circulated to all member governments, and would have been sent to the Home Office.

The document, entitled New Transatlantic Agenda, EU-US meeting on Justice and Home Affairs, details the subjects discussed by the 31 people present. The agenda included the fight against terrorism, drug trafficking and extradition agreements.

According to the full version, "Both sides agreed on areas where co-operation could be improved [inter alia] the exchange of data between border management services, increased use of European transit facilities to support the return of criminal/ inadmissible aliens, co-ordination with regard to false documents training and improving the co-operation in removals."

But this section, and others referring to US policy, were deleted - as a "courtesy" to Washington, according to a spokesman for the EU Council of Ministers.

Tony Bunyan, of the Statewatch civil liberties group which obtained the original document, said: "What kind of facilities are these and how many people work there? That phrase suggests the US is being allowed to use airports in Europe to transport criminals from third countries."

Washington has been angered by EU protests about the movement and alleged abuse of terror suspects. Yesterday, John Bellinger, senior legal adviser to the US State Department, said the convention against torture, which the US has signed, "would generally apply" to prisoners held by the US.

He said on BBC radio: "Some of the allegations more broadly about all sorts of things are ludicrous. These allegations that we have these activities going on in the hundreds over Europe, and that we are going to take people off to be mistreated, are simply untrue."