July 27, 2006
By Thomas Harding, Defence Correspondent
Relations between Britain and America worsened yesterday when Margaret Beckett, the Foreign Secretary, accused Washington of being “seriously at fault” for using a British airport to transfer bombs to Israel.
Following a report in The Daily Telegraph that two cargo planes filled with 5,000 lb GBU-28 bunker-busting bombs had refuelled at Prestwick, near Glasgow, Mrs Beckett said on Channel 4 News that she was “not happy about it”.
She originally sought out Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, in a break in talks in Rome yesterday to express her discontent before deciding to make a complaint publicly.
She told Channel 4 News that correct procedures were apparently not followed to allow “that kind of cargo” flying rights.
“I have let the United States know that this is an issue that appears to be seriously at fault, that we will be making a formal protest if it appears that that is what has happened,” Mrs Beckett said.
“We are still looking into the facts but I have notified the United States that we are not happy.”
It appears that Britain was pushed into accepting the cargo after Israel called for laser-guided weapons to use against Hizbollah leaders.
It is believed that 100 GBU-28 bombs, which can penetrate yards of reinforced concrete, passed through Britain after the Pentagon approved their export in a deal made with Israel last year.
Last night, BBC 2’s Newsnight programme reported the United States had also lodged requests to carry two more planes through Britain in the next two weeks, on route to Israel carrying not just components but real weapons, bombs and missiles.
Prestwick airport was the scene of a previous controversy when it was used as a stop-over point for CIA planes that went on to be used for “rendition” flights carrying terrorist suspects.
British officials were aghast when the news broke that Prestwick airport had been used as a staging post for the bomb-carrying planes. They were well aware that the disclosure would reinforce the perception that Mr Blair was subservient to America’s needs and also revive the row over the CIA’s use of European bases to ship terrorist suspects around the world.
Officials were also furious with their American counterparts. They saw it as one of the most careless and high-handed approaches towards America’s close ally since just before the Iraq war when Donald Rumsfeld, the US defence secretary, suggested that America could invade Iraq without the British troops drawn up in Kuwait.
“It was a cock-up. It goes to the heart of the idea that the Prime Minister is Bush’s poodle,” said one source.
Officials insist that the row will not overshadow tomorrow’s talks between Mr Blair and President George W Bush at the White House.
But they concede that the timing is awful, following as it does, the publication of an unflattering recording last week of a conversation between the two leaders.