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Edition - December 16th 2000
Was Sa Carneiro killed to cover up White House arms deal?
After endless and inconclusive investigations, could the truth now finally be revealed? A former Portuguese prime minister may have been murdered to conceal evidence of secret US government arms deals with Iran under a deal to help the Republicans win back the White House, writes Siobhan Mitchell. The weapons deals are said to have been instigated by senior American officials, and were smuggled through Portugal with the help of military chiefs.However, Portugal's then defense minister stumbled across the deal and tried to put a stop to it - but was assassinated, along with the prime minister, before he could blow the whistle on the scandal. The shocking new theory, to be revealed in a book published next week, links the assassination of a Portuguese premier to a murky arms-for-hostages deal allegedly struck between Tehran's fundamentalist leaders and George Bush, former US President and father of the present Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush.
Sa Carneiro, Portugal's popular leader, died in a mysterious plane crash in Lisbon in 1980, alongside his defence minister and five others. Relatives of the crash victims have long rejected the official verdict of accidental death, and maintain that a senior Portuguese army officer ordered the bombing. Now, a former Portuguese government minister claims to have uncovered new evidence showing that the bombing was carried out to prevent public disclosure of clandestine US weapons shipments to Iran conducted with the help of Portuguese army officers.
Ricardo S Fernandes - lawyer for the victims' families, and who resigned this week as junior finance minister in Ant¢nio Guterres' government - Says that the then defence minister, Amaro da Costa, was the intended victim, and not the prime minister, who had joined the flight at the last minute. Sa Carneiro had in fact booked a seat on a TAP plane to Oporto, where the two men were to speak at an election rally, but then changed his mind so he would have time to dine first at his favourite Lisbon restaurant. Amaro da Costa was targeted because he had stumbled across documents showing that senior Portuguese officers were using a secret 'slush fund' to help traffic arms to Iran as part of a deal struck by officials linked to Ronald Reagan and George Bush, who in 1980 were campaigning to become US President and Vice-President.
A number of journalists, former White House aides and Middle East politicians have repeatedly claimed that George Bush was directly involved in setting up the deal with Iran's fundamentalist leaders, promising arms in return for a delay in the release of 52 US hostages held captive in the Tehran Embassy. According to former Iranian President Bani Sadr, the deal was struck in secret meetings held in Madrid and Paris in 1980 in order 'to handicap (President) Carter's re-election bid by preventing the hostages' release before the American elections in November 1980.' Reagan and Bush, it is said, feared that an early release of the hostages would win votes for Carter, and so they asked the Iranians to hold onto them until after the elections were over. If they agreed, the Iranians would receive US$5 billion in weapons and spare parts - in spite of an official ban on arms sales to the country - as well as US$40 million in cash from a new Republican administration.
The extent of the alleged Portuguese connection in the scandal has never been previously revealed. However, in a book to be published next week, it is revealed that - just before he died - Portugal's defence minister obtained documents from Middle East diplomats detailing the involvement of Portuguese officers in the operation. Incriminating papers showing the extent of the trade through Portugal were in Amaro da Costa's possession when his plane exploded and crashed into the Lisbon suburb of Camarate, killing everyone on board, including the prime minister. Among them are said to have been profiles of Portuguese army officers, and details of shipments passing through the ports of Lisbon, Set£bal and Leixäes. Costa, said a source, was 'eliminated because he was getting into dangerous territory.' They are also believed to have shown the theft of arms from NATO stocks for its annual 'Reforger' exercise - staged to prepare for an attack on Europe by Soviet bloc forces - and shipments from US bases via Portugal that included HAWK missiles stowed on board Israeli El Al airliners by Mossad secret agents. Other papers may, it is believed, may have shown how fake end-user certificates were obtained in Turkey to disguise some of the shipments as plumbing equipment and medicines.
Amaro da Costa is said to have originally stumbled across the murky dealings after discovering the existence of a 'slush fund' originally set up by the Portuguese army to finance clandestine operations during its colonial wars in Africa, which had ended 6 years previously, now used as a 'petty cash' account to facilitate transactions. Amaro da Costa reportedly told colleagues that he was 'profoundly worried' about the documents' contents. Portugal's former Ambassador to the US, Hall Themido, recently told in his memoirs how the American secret service made a top-secret approach to the Portuguese government itself , asking it to allow arms destined for Iran to pass through its borders.
Moreover, a US Congressional inquiry in the mid-1980s found evidence that Lisbon's airport was used in the undercover movement of missiles from the US to Iran by Oliver North, the 'Contragate' scandal figure later jailed for his role in diverting profits from the trade to fund the right-wing rebel army in Nicaragua. A commission of inquiry by Portuguese MPs last year concluded that Amaro da Costa's discoveries were the probable motive behind his assassination. It discovered that a large sum was transferred from the 'slush-fund' to an unidentified account shortly before the crash, and found traces of bomb explosives on fragments of the plane.
Sworn testimony by former members of a terrorist ring linked to his death named an army officer who allegedly helped the bombers to escape justice. One of the ring, Carlos Miranda, said: Amaro da Costa was the intended victim. It was to do with the arms smuggling. There has been repeated speculation that, as well as ordering the bombing, Portuguese officers may have helped to cover up the crime, both by hiding the alleged perpetrators and interfering with the official judiciary police (PJ) investigation into the crash, which was overseen by an army officer. It emerged last week that, just days after the crash, Scotland Yard detectives tipped off Portuguese authorities about the man now thought to have planted the bomb on board the plane. However Freitas do Amaral, Sa Carneiro's deputy prime minister, said that evidence of the approach from Scotland Yard had now mysteriously vanished from official files. Lee Rodrigues, who was under investigation by British police for alleged gun smuggling and terrorist offences, had been tailed by detectives to Lisbon, who saw him in the plane's hangar the night of the crash. They immediately informed the Portuguese Ambassador in London, who sent a telegram to Amaral, then acting prime minister, who had it delivered by hand to the judiciary police (PJ) investigating the disaster. However, the telegram has now disappeared from PJ and embassy files. Scotland Yard also offered to help the investigations, and handed over Rodrigues whom they arrested when he arrived in London a few days later. However, the PJ ordered his release after - they say - obtaining an alibi from his mother and sister, whom it has now emerged had been dead for 10 years. Durao Barroso, Portugal's opposition leader, has called for a reopening of the case, saying that he was now absolutely convinced that the death of Sa Carneiro and all those accompanying him was no accident.
Ricardo S Fernandes, who resigned from the government after clashing with justice minister Antonio Costa over the affair, says that he will present the new evidence in his book to be published next week.
For further background to this story, see Late PM Still Causing Problems from previous edition or search our archives