LONDON - The Government has admitted for the first time that British troops in Iraq handed over to the US two terror suspects who were then transferred to Afghanistan for interrogation, sparking fresh claims that it colluded over extraordinary rendition.
John Hutton, the Defence Secretary, told MPs in the Commons that officials had been aware about the incident in 2004 and that "it should have been questioned at the time".
The case was featured in lengthy papers that went in front of two Cabinet ministers, Jack Straw, the then-Foreign Secretary, and Charles Clarke, previously the Home Secretary, he added.
Both deny having seen the references, and Mr Hutton claimed that they were buried in the papers and their significance was not flagged up by officials.
The statement - during which Mr Hutton said he apologised "unreservedly" for what he said were a sequence of inaccurate previous parliamentary announcements on terror detainees - will cause huge embarrassment to the Government, which has repeatedly denied that it played any part in helping the US with the process of extraordinary rendition.
The procedure, condemned by human rights groups, has allegedly seen terror suspects transferred by the US to third countries where torture is not illegal.
In his statement, Mr Hutton said the latest incident came to light after a lengthy review of detentions in Iraq and Afghanistan which has thrown up a series of other errors in details previously released to Parliament.
He added that the US has told Britain it is not "possible or desirable" to move the individuals, who are still in Afghanistan, either back to Iraq or their home countries.
However, the Defence Secretary stressed that Britain had been assured that the suspects had been kept in a humane way - attempting to counter accusations that they were being tortured.
"The individuals transferred to Afghanistan are members of Lashkar e Tayyiba, a proscribed organisation with links to al-Qaeda," Mr Hutton said.
"The US Government has explained to us that they were moved to Afghanistan because of a lack of relevant linguists necessary to interrogate them effectively in Iraq.
"The US has categorised them as unlawful enemy combatants and continues to review their status on a regular basis.
"We have been assured that the detainees are held in a humane, safe and secure environment meeting international standards consistent with cultural and religious norms."
Mr Hutton added: "This review has established that officials were aware of this transfer in 2004.
"It has also shown that brief references to this case were included in lengthy papers that went to the then Foreign Secretary (Jack Straw) and Home Secretary (Charles Clarke) in April 2006.
"It is clear that the context did not highlight its significance at that point to the ministers concerned."
He went on: "In retrospect, it is clear to me that the transfer to Afghanistan of these two individuals should have been questioned at the time."
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He said the US had assured Britain the two continued to represent "significant security concerns" and it was "neither possible or desirable to transfer them to either their country of detention or country of origin".
His statement caused a row in the Commons, with the Conservatives claiming it left open a "glaring hole" of British complicity in torture.
"This statement avoids the principal public issue, which is the charge about complicity by United Kingdom forces operating in Iraq outside the multinational division south east," Crispin Blunt said. "This is a glaring hole and must be addressed."
Mr Blunt asked why the transfer had not been more fully investigated in 2004, adding: "It is at the very least unfortunate that both officials and ministers overlooked the significance of these cases, not least since the issue of rendition was already highly controversial."
He asked Mr Hutton what confidence he had that detainees in Afghanistan had not been tortured, pointing to claims from Ben Griffin, the former SAS soldier, that UK forces would regularly hand over detainees in Iraq with a "wider assumption" that they would be subjected to 'waterboarding' by US colleagues.
Mr Blunt said: "Exquisite detail about official and ministerial oversight about two men is all very well and appreciated but it sits ill with simply sweeping under the carpet the apparent evidence of direct British service involvement with delivery to gross mistreatment amounting to torture involving hundreds, if not thousands, of people."
He added: "The country is owed an account of what happened - nothing does more to undermine our fight against terrorism and violence if we depart from the rule of law and the values we seek to defend. We do the terrorists' work for them."
Mr Hutton rejected the accusation that ministers were sweeping anything under the carpet with regards to complicity in torture.
"That is simply not true," he said. "We have extended an open hand and an open invitation for people to come forward and confirm these allegations - none have done so."
Referring to the claims made by Mr Griffin, Mr Hutton added: "There is no such evidence to substantiate those allegations.
"These have been looked at by a very senior serving British army general officer, and he has found no evidence to support those allegations."
Also in his statement, Mr Hutton "unreservedly" apologised for inaccuracies in figures on the number of detainees held by UK forces in the period since January 2004.
It had become apparent, he said, that in three parliamentary answers since February 2007, ministers overstated by about 1,000 the number of detainees held. "Nine further answers contained minor inaccuracies."
Mr Hutton said figures relating to the position in 2003 had indicated that UK forces initially held up to 5,000 Iraqi prisoners.
But a significant number of these were held on behalf of other coalition forces, and it was now believed that UK forces transferred around 3,000 to the detention facility at Umm Qasr between March and December 2003 - although the figure was a "best estimate".
Mr Blunt said he was "astonished" that improved conditions since 2003 had not led to more accurate counting.