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The Financial Times , 28.3.02

Pinochet cloud over Straw's Chilean defence contracts push. By JIMMY BURNS and MARK MULLIGAN

Jack Straw, who as home secretary authorised the detention and then the release of General Pinochet, is preparing for a politically sensitive visit to Chile to bolster a British defence industry push for contracts.

The foreign secretary arrives in Santiago a week tomorrow behind a defence industry delegation visiting one of the biggest annual military trade fairs in Latin America.

The delegation led by BAE Systems, Britain's biggest defence company, is bidding hard for Pounds 1bn worth contracts being considered by the Chilean armed forces as part of a 10-year procurement programme.

The visit, the first by a UK foreign secretary since well before the Labour party was returned to power in 1997, is symbolic because he presided over the controversial house arrest in October 1998 of the former dictator.

Mr Straw, who last visited Chile in 1966 as a socialist student, is still viewed with suspicion by rightwing Chileans and the armed forces who blame him for the 16-month detention of Gen Pinochet on human rights charges before his return to face trial in Chile.

Anger over the detention influenced the decision last year by the Chilean airforce to buy 16 F-16 fighter jets from Lockheed Martin of the US instead of the Gripen combat aircraft manufactured by a joint venture involving BAE Systems.

However, subsequent British ministerial visits to Chile, led by Geoff Hoon, the defence secretary, have recognised the country remains a stable and important trading partner.

Mr Straw is thought to have been advised by his officials not to include Buenos Aires on his trip for fear his personal security might be compromised and nationalist feelings stirred on the 20th anniversary of the Falklands war.

Contracts being negotiated in Santiago include an upgrade of the Chilean military's avionics systems, including the refurbishment of Type-22 anti-submarine frigates - currently used by the Royal Navy.

Britain hopes to take advantage of the collapse of Chile's negotiations on a Dollars 1.2bn (Pounds 840m) contract for four frigates with the German shipbuilder Blohm and Voss.
 

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