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UK memo fuels CIA flights row

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The CIA allegedly used this Boeing 737 with registration number N313P to transport terror suspects, AP said.

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LONDON, England -- The British government was under renewed pressure over allegations of so-called extraordinary rendition after reports of a leaked memo suggested Washington may have used UK airspace to transport detainees more often than officials have said.

Foreign Secretary Jack Straw told the House of Commons last month that officials could find records of only two times when U.S. authorities were allowed to use British airspace for rendition flights -- both before the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

But the New Statesman magazine on Thursday published what it said was a memo from the Foreign Office to Prime Minister Tony Blair's office suggesting that officials believed there may have been more flights.

The memo also suggests that British officials were worried that U.S. activities may be illegal under international law and were keen to try to avoid questions about them.

The leaked memo, written in early December, appears to be a primer to help Blair deal with questions about rendition, the UK's Press Association reported.

It warns: "We are urgently examining the files. We cannot say that we have received no such request for the use of UK territory.

"The papers we have uncovered so far suggest that there could be more than the two cases referred to in the House by the Foreign Secretary."

The memo also warns that rendition -- the extra-judicial transfer of a suspect to U.S. jurisdiction or his home country -- and extraordinary rendition, or transfer to a third country, are probably illegal in international law, PA reported.

"In the most common use of the term -- i.e., involving real risk of torture -- it could never be legal because this is clearly prohibited by the U.N. Convention Against Torture," the memo says.

The memo suggests that Blair should respond to any questions about the practice by trying to move the debate on to another subject.

"The British government should avoid getting drawn on detail," the memo says. "We now cannot say that we have received no such request for the use of UK territory or airspace for the purpose of extraordinary rendition.

"It does remain true that we are not aware of the use of UK territory or airspace for the purposes of extraordinary rendition.

"But we think we should now try to move the debate on from the specifics of rendition -- extraordinary or otherwise -- and focus people instead on (U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza) Rice's clear assurance that U.S. activities are consistent with their domestic and international obligations and never include the use of torture."

In a statement last month, Rice insisted that the United States does not transport people overseas for torture.

Her assurance came in response to a letter from Straw, on behalf of EU foreign ministers, asking for clarification of reports that Washington was operating secret interrogation centers in eastern Europe.

A week later, Straw told MPs that checks by officials had uncovered only two cases when rendition flights had been approved -- both to transfer suspects to the US in 1998. A request to transfer a detainee to a third country in the same year appeared to have been turned down.

Blair also told the House of Commons that he accepted Rice's assurances "entirely." He later told MPs it would be "completely absurd" to investigate every U.S. government plane that passed through British airspace.

But opposition leaders have asked the government to explain the memo.

Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman Nick Clegg said the memo undermined many of Blair's public comments on rendition, including his endorsement of Rice's comments, PA reported.

"This document explains months of government obfuscation and inconsistency on extraordinary rendition. The government's position is full of holes," Clegg said

Conservative foreign spokesman William Hague said: "This leaked memo requires fresh explanations from the Foreign Office. It is important that any further requests, in addition to those already confirmed by the Foreign Office, are revealed.

"We still need to know from ministers whether they are entirely satisfied that UK airspace and territory has not been used for the transfer of suspects leading to their torture."

Neither the Foreign Office or Blair's office at 10 Downing St. would comment on the memo, PA said.

But a Foreign Office spokesman told PA: "The Foreign Secretary has made clear we have not approved and will not approve a policy of facilitating the transfer of individuals through the UK to places where there are substantial grounds to believe they would face a real risk of torture.

"The government does not deport or extradite any person to another state where there are substantive grounds to believe that person would be subject to torture or where there is a real risk the death penalty could be applied."

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