31 OCTOBER 1998, Page 28


Michael Vestey thinks he might have had a part in General Pinochet's aid to Britain in the Falklands war PURELY by chance, I was involved in one example of General Pinochet's co-opera- tion with Britain during the 1982 Falklands war. As a BBC reporter I was sitting in my room in the Cabo de Hornos Hotel in the port of Punta Arenas in southern Chile when the telephone rang. It was a military contact I had made on arriving in the city and he wanted me to come round to his office, he couldn't explain why on the tele- phone. The military under General Pinochet controlled every region of Chile at the time and for those of us attempting to cover the Falklands conflict from the nearest non-Argentine point it was useful to have friendly contact amongst them. Apart from anything else, we needed their permission to fly anywhere near the border with Argentina, which was just across the Magellan Strait on the island of Tierra del Fuego.

My contact was a charming, well-educat- ed man who spoke perfect English. He knew the British services well and, like so many Chileans, he was keenly Anglophile. The local consul had an English surname and a young farmer I became friendly with was half-Scottish. They all had one thing in common: they disliked the Argentinians. At the time Chile was almost on a war footing with its neighbour over disputed islands at the mouth of the Beagle Chan- nel; the border with Argentina runs down the centre of the waterway. The Chilean government was more than happy to help Britain, allowing aircraft to fly from its shores and use its air bases.

When I arrived to see my contact, who must remain anonymous, I was shown in to his office. He passed me a piece of lined paper from a notebook which I still have. At the top he had written in blue ink: `Al.' And below: 1 heavy unit, 2 light units. 13-1400 Zulu time. Lat 54 00S, Long 65 40W. Steering evasive course 335o,18 knots.

`Can you pass it to your people?' he asked as I read it. 'The BBC?' I replied. He smiled, 'No, your government.' I realised that as a member of the military regime he assumed I worked for the Bntish government, that everyone employed by the BBC must be a spy. I explained that I did not work for the gov- ernment and never had done, but he mere- ly insisted that I pass it on.

`What does it mean?' I asked rereading the note. 'I can't tell you but your govern- ment will know,' he said. 'It's important.' I agreed to pass it on and as I walked the short distance back to the hotel I won- dered what on earth the note meant and to whom it should be given. It was obviously a shipping movement and location, but of what? I had travelled from South Africa to Central America via Nicaragua, Panama and Brazil and was covering the war and elections in El Salvador when the Falk- lands crisis blew up. I had gone straight from Salvador to Punta Arenas and had not had time to familiarise myself com- pletely with Argentina's military capability or deployment. I was also in a dilemma. Was I compromising my independence and objectivity as a journalist by helping out here? After all, we are not supposed to work for any government, including our own. Then I decided that I was not 'work- ing' for the government at all, merely act- ing as a conduit. And as the British armed forces were one of the few remaining insti- tutions that I wholeheartedly admired, it would have been absurd to have refused to do something that might help our own forces against an evil regime such as Gen- eral Galtieri's. Anyway, although I had to remain impartial as a broadcaster, as a citi- zen I had no doubt whose side I was on in this war: Britain's.

So back in the hotel room I rang the military attache at the British embassy in Santiago and told him I had some Al information for him from the local military and suggested I read it out. 'Can't you telex it?' he said. The hotel did not have telex and it would have meant an inconve- nient trip to the main post office. 'It's just that we're not the only people listening to this conversation,' he said with a hint of cloak and dagger. He finally agreed, though, to take it down over the telephone and, when I had finished, hung up abrupt- ly. I thought no more about it until the news came through of the sinking of the General Belgrano which had been aban- doned by its two support destroyers. It sounded suspiciously as if the one heavy unit and two light units of the note I had been given referred to these ships. But there were a number of puzzling aspects to this. Why couldn't my contact have rung up the military attaché himself or telexed the note to him? Why did he ask me to do it? I also assumed that an American satellite would have traced the Belgrano, though later I was told it wasn't available for the British at the time.

Presumably in return for my co- operation, my contact gave me a scoop. He rang one afternoon and said, 'One of your helicopters has come down twenty kilometres west of here. It's a Sea King. The crew, thinking they were in Argenti- na, have fled the scene and vanished.' I walked along the hotel corridor and told the television crew and we drove off to find the aircraft. Sure enough it was a Sea King lying on the foreshore of the Magel- lan Strait exactly 20 kilometres from town. The cockpit had been damaged by fire. When I rang the BBC in London to broadcast the report on the PM pro- gramme on Radio Four I was told that the MoD was denying that any of our helicopters had come down. 'But I've just seen it,' I said. 'How do you know it's a Sea King?' came the reply. But I was allowed to broadcast the fact and the MoD suddenly decided to confirm it. My contact's story that the crew had suffered engine problems over what they thought was enemy territory was an early example of spin-doctoring. It was an SAS crew returning, I believe, to a base in Chile which neither Britain nor Chile could admit to. Far from hiding in the hills and living off survival rations, the crew were no doubt sitting comfortably in some Chilean military base. Thinking that we in Punta Arenas would have got wind of the helicopter, Chile and Britain decided to manage the news. Still, all scoops help and I was pleased my contact had chosen me to be the recipient of the story. I stayed in Punta Arenas for about six weeks and it became clear that we wouldn't get any closer to the conflict. During my stay I didn't refer to the note that my contact had given me, but later over dinner one evening he talked of his satisfaction that the Belgrano had been sunk. 'It was always spying on us,' he said. Apparently, the Belgrano would creep into the fjord-type waterways that cut into the mass of islands that make n13 southern Chile and quietly eavesdrop on military traffic. He lamented the loss of life but blamed the support ships for abandoning the cruiser once it had been hit by a torpedo from the submarine Conquerer. In London some time later I took him to lunch and asked him if the note had been about the position of the Belgrano. He shrugged. 'Might have been,' he said. 'I don't know.'