Aircraft used by the CIA to transport prisoners to countries where they are reportedly being tortured have landed in the North, it has been revealed.
British transport secretary Alistair Darling said aircraft operated by the Central Intelligence Agency to take prisoners out of the United States had landed at Belfast International Airport and City of Derry Airport after January 2001.
Mr Darling said the British government had no information about the flights’ purposes because they were “non-commercial”.
However, campaigners against the Iraq war have warned that such flights are being used for rendition -- the transferring of detainees between countries for interrogation or torture.
Campaigners have also voiced concern in recent months about the use of Shannon airport in County Clare for such flights.
Responding to a question in the British House of Commons, Mr Darling said six US planes linked to “extraordinary renditions” had used airports in the North and Britain 73 times since 2001.
He confirmed that the planes’ serial numbers matched those on the campaigners’ list.
However, he said he had no evidence the planes had been involved in rendition.
The US administration is to discuss the possibility of making public the purpose of CIA flights through Shannon in order to “allay public concern”, according to the 26-County Taoiseach Bertie Ahern.
After meeting President Bush in the White House on Friday, Mr Ahern said he and the president “agreed to touch base” on this “over the next couple of weeks”.
Mr Ahern said that despite Ireland’s official policy of military neutrality, his government was “happy” to “facilitate a large number of American troops”.
But he admitted there was “concern about extraordinary renditions and concern about CIA flights”.
“We have asked for the president’s understanding and co-operation,” he added. “We are going to look at how we might bring more transparency to that process, if it is possible.”
Asked if he was suggesting that Irish authorities might begin inspecting US aircraft at Shannon to see if they were carrying prisoners, he said other countries did not do this and he did not want to.
“But we have CIA flights that land. I’m sure they are all on totally legitimate business.”