HC Deb 28 April 1948 vol 450 cc396-8
Mr. Pickthorn

(by Private Notice) asked the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs whether he has any information about Mr. J. E. Burke, a British military officer reported shot dead by a Yugoslav guard, and about his wife and another officer who were arrested on the same occasion.

Mr Bevin

Yes, Sir. The first information which we received about this incident came from His Majesty's Ambassador in Belgrade. He reported that the Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs in the Yugoslav Government had telephoned on the morning of 26th April to express his great regret that as a result of an incident on the Austro-Yugoslav frontier one or two British soldiers had lost their lives. He stated that the Yugoslav Government proposed the immediate appointment of a mixed Anglo-Yugoslav military commission to establish the facts.

We have also now received an account from the British High Commissioner in Vienna. The High Commissioner states that Lieutenant John Burke, his wife Mrs. Inga Burke and Second Lieutenant Marler left their car at about 4 p.m. on the evening of 25th April at the Loibl Pass and went for a walk. At 8 p.m. they were reported as absent and a search all night by British troops failed to locate them.

The next morning the High Commissioner received a short report of what had happened from His Majesty's Ambassador in Belgrade. He immediately caused a senior British officer to go to the Yugoslav frontier post and request the return of the body of Lieutenant Burke, who had been shot; and the release of Mrs. Burke and Lieutenant Marler. The Yugoslav officers said they had no authority to do this but would telephone to Belgrade for instructions. Nothing more was heard that day and the next morning Brigadier Churchill, British Commander in the zone, repeated the request in person.

It has hitherto been impossible to obtain any information as to what actually occurred since the Yugoslav authorities have not yet given us any opportunity of access to the persons who are at present under detention. I have accordingly instructed the British High Commissioner to state that his representative must be allowed free access to the British survivors.

Mr. Pickthorn

Are we to take it that a joint Anglo-Yugoslav court or committee of inquiry is being set up?

Mr. Bevin

First of all, we must get access to the survivors. I must get the facts. I do not quite know where this happened. This difficulty has arisen between two sovereign countries and, in accordance with the usual practice, we must be able to collect the evidence and then we shall determine what our course should be. I have sent to the High Commissioner to insist that there must be free access in order to take the statements of survivors.

Mr. Eden

Am I right in understanding from what has been said that the present information does not enable one to judge on which side of the frontier the incident actually occurred? Are we assured that should it have been on our side of the frontier, the right hon. Gentleman would then realise that the legal position from our point of view is a very much stronger one?

Mr. Bevin

Certainly. As my right hon. Friend knows, the question of where these incidents occur is very important. I must establish the facts. I do not want to exaggerate these differences, but here is an opportunity to remove a lot of ill-feeling if the Yugoslavs and the British High Commissioner co-operate in getting the facts and then, having established them, have an inquiry to see what occurred.

Earl Winterton

The right hon. Gentleman says that he is asking for access to two British subjects, one of whom is the wife of a man who has been murdered. Surely, the first thing which His Majesty's Government do in all such circumstances is to ask that they should be released?

Mr. Bevin

No. I am afraid that is what we do not do. I think I am correct in saying that if a thing occurs in another country, we then make representations to that country to get the facts, and then we proceed to act. I think that is quite in accordance with the usual practice. That is what I am doing in this case.

Mr. Bellenģer

Does my right hon. Friend realise that in these very wild parts, where the line of demarcation is most indefinite, it is easy to stray over the line? Therefore, in these circumstances, would my right hon. Friend at least urge His Majesty's representative in Belgrade to give all possible comfort to the individuals, especially the lady, as soon as possible?

Mr. Bevin

I have done that. If access is refused, another situation will arise, but this has happened very quickly and I have to try to ascertain the facts. I recognise that there may be disputes about the frontier, but I do not know at the moment. Before I act I ought to be exactly clear what I am doing.