17 January 2002 Edition

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Britain's bombay take-away

A bizarre deal in which Britain considered buying back StgĀ£65 million worth of helicopters to prop up its support operation in the Six Counties almost a decade ago has come back to haunt the Ministry of Defence, says Bernard Moffatt of the Celtic League

"There has been another twist in the story we dubbed "Britain's Bombay Take-Away" in which the United Kingdom MoD tried to buy back 21 helicopters donated as foreign aid to India to replace obsolete Lynx helicopters operating in N. Ireland," says Moffatt.

The British parliamentary financial watchdog, the National Audit Office, is to re-open an investigation surrounding the circumstances of the supply to India, by the Thatcher government, of Westland WG30 helicopters.

In May 1993, the Celtic League, via its journal CARN, published a brief article in which it alleged that MoD officials had been "scouring helicopter junkyards globally for suitable second-hand helicopters to prop up their tottering logisitical support operation in Ulster".

The League identified two types that had been considered, Chinook helicopters operated by the Royal Australian Air Force and also the Westland WG30 machines, supplied to India as part of an overseas aid programme. These were lying unused on the edge of a Bombay slum after Indian pilots had refused to fly them on safety grounds.

At the time the allegation, reported briefly in some Six-County newspapers, was described as "extraordinary" by an MoD spokesperson. However, four years later the issue returned to haunt the British government when the Guardian newspaper ran the story (19 Sept 1997) under the heading "Buy back of helicopters considered".

"Even the Celtic League had not been aware until that time of the farcical nature of this escapade," said Moffatt. "It became apparent that the British had supplied the Westland machines as part of an oil support commitment to overseas aid. The machines were subsequently sold for scrap and the MoD officials came along looking to buy them back.

"What we described at the time as an expensive farce continues, with Britain's Audit Office promising to probe the mystery of the overseas aid helicopters that British tax payers almost paid twice for."

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