Antony Barnett / The Observer – 2006-02-14 22:02:37
LONDON (January 29, 2006) — A British technology company and a secretive airforce base in Cambridgeshire are playing a key role in the CIA’s use of robot Predator planes, deployed to assassinate suspected terrorists overseas,The Observer can reveal.
A missile fired from a Predator killed more than 20 innocent people in Pakistan earlier this month in a botched US bid to kill Ayman al Zawahiri, the deputy leader of al-Qaeda, and similar attacks have been made in Iraq, Yemen and on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.
The attacks have been condemned by humanitarian organisations, which argue that extra-judicial killings break international law and have led to the deaths of innocent civilians.
The revelation that Britain is involved in the Predator programme is likely to prove controversial. Amnesty International and the Liberal Democrats said they would press the government to uncover the truth about the UK’s role in the programme and whether or not British firms should be allowed to supply components for the weapon.
‘We want reassurances from ministers that nothing is happening on British soil that contravenes international law,’ said Michael Moore, the Liberal Democrat defence spokesman.
The Observer has discovered that the computer ‘brains’ of the unmanned Predators are made in Towcester, Northamptonshire, by Radstone Technology. The firm manufactures the computer boards that control the drones and enable the CIA to target top al-Qaeda suspects. Predators are controlled remotely by satellite and a joystick. When a target is identified, the Predators fire a Hellfire missile.
The company refused to comment on its contract with the US military, but confirmed it had been supplying the ‘rugged communications systems and micro processors’ for Predators for several years. A spokesman for the firm described the equipment as the brain of the Predator and said that, without its technology, the vehicle couldn’t fly. The US Air Force has just announced an order for a further 140 Predators.
‘These kinds of targeted attacks – with air-to-surface missiles taking the place of judicial process – appear to be in breach of international law,’ said Amnesty International’s UK campaigns director, Stephen Bowen. ‘That up to 22 civilians were also killed in a recent attack makes it all the more worrying.
‘The government must investigate what role UK-supplied technology has played in this attack, and whether it breaks arms export laws.’
Equally controversial is the disclosure that images taken by Predators as they fly across international airspace are beamed back to a top-secret US base at RAF Molesworth in Cambridgeshire. Staff at the American Joint Analysis Centre study the images and then decide what action to take.
The images arrive at the former US cruise missile base via fibre-optic cables under the Atlantic. RAF Molesworth is connected to the secret American satellite-linked ‘global broadcast system’. It is believed that British defence intelligence officers work with their US counterparts to analyse the data.
Although the key decisions on whether to fire the missiles are taken either by military command in Iraq or in the United States, the fact that a British base is used to collect material from the Predators has sparked concern.
The Liberal Democrats said they would write to the Defence Secretary, John Reid, to demand to know whether British military personnel and US bases in Britain are being used for these targeted assassinations.
A spokesman for the MoD said the department could not comment as it was a matter for the Americans as to what happened at their military base at RAF Molesworth.
According to Amnesty, under international standards, extra-judicial killings are always unlawful, and ‘a state of war or threat of war, internal political instability or any public emergency may not be invoked as a justification for such executions’.
An earlier case of what President George W Bush described as ‘sudden justice’ occurred in Yemen on 3 November 2002, when six men were killed in a car, blown up by missiles fired from a CIA-controlled Predator drone. One of the people in the vehicle was alleged to be a senior member of al-Qaeda, Abu Ali al-Harithi.
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