US denies breaking UK rules on Israel bomb flights

By Peter Graff
Thursday, July 27, 2006; 10:25 AM

LONDON (Reuters) - The United States denied on Thursday that it had broken British air transport procedures after London complained about U.S. flights through a Scottish airport taking bombs to Israel.

A newspaper said Britain had agreed to allow Washington to fly more weapons to Israel via its airports despite Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett saying she was "not happy" about Washington failing to comply with procedures for such flights.

The Israel-bound arms flights threaten to overshadow Tony Blair's visit to Washington this weekend.

The prime minister has faced mounting criticism at home as the only major world leader to join the United States in refusing to call for Israel to immediately stop its two-week bombing campaign of Lebanon.

Beckett said on Wednesday she had complained to Washington because the United States had not followed procedure for flying cargo loads of bombs bound for Israel through British airports.

"We have already let the United States know that this is an issue that appears to be seriously at fault, and we will be making a formal protest if it appears that that is what has happened," she said in Rome after a Lebanon crisis meeting.

Newspapers have said two Airbus cargo jets loaded with U.S. bunker-busting bombs landed at Prestwick. British officials have not commented on the flights in detail but do not dispute those accounts.

"It appears that insofar as there are procedures for handling that kind of hazardous cargo, irrespective of what they are, it does appear that they were not followed," Beckett said.

But British officials have since seemed to row back from that position, saying authorities are still studying whether any rules were broken. The Foreign Office refused to allow its spokesman to discuss the subject on the record on Thursday.

U.S. Defense Department spokesman Joe Carpenter said Washington had double checked its records of all flights since the reports emerged and found that it had not broken any procedures, in Britain or anywhere else.

"It's our policy that U.S. military flights and those contracted on our behalf comply with existing bilateral agreements," he said. "There have been no recent deviations from those procedures."

The Evening Standard newspaper said London had given Washington the all-clear to continue more Israel-bound arms flights after sorting out the proper procedures. The Foreign Office would neither confirm nor deny that report.

Blair's backing for President Bush in refusing to call for an immediate ceasefire in Lebanon is unpopular at home. Blair has said an agreement on an international force and other conditions are needed before a ceasefire can be called.

He was mocked by the media after he was overheard by an open microphone at a summit offering his services to Bush to go to the Middle East ahead of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Bush didn't accept the offer, and Blair didn't go.

U.S. use of British airports has been an issue in the past, with Blair being accused by parliamentarians and human rights groups of allowing Washington to transport prisoners over British territory outside of normal extradition procedures.

Blair says his government has broken no laws over such "extraordinary renditions."

© 2006 Reuters