HC Deb 26 February 1963 vol 672 cc1085-90

The following Questions stood upon the Order Paper:

23. Mr. G. M. THOMSON

To ask the Secretary of State for the Colonies if he will make a statement on the latest posi- tion regarding the incursion into Aden Federal territory of troops of the Yemen Republic; and what steps he is taking to secure a peaceful solution.


To ask the Secretary of State for the Colonies whether the Yemeni Republican invaders of Aden Federal territory have now been expelled or interned; and if he will make a further statement.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies (Mr. Nigel Fisher)

With permission, I will now answer Questions Nos. 23 and 27.

The High Commissioner for Aden reported three days ago that the Yemeni force had been strengthened and was believed to number about 300 soldiers and tribesmen armed with mortars and machine-guns. Her Majesty's Government were asked by the Federal authorities to assist them, in accordance with our Treaty obligations, to resist this armed trespass on Federal territory. We were fully conscious of these Treaty obligations, and moreover we could not allow Federal territory to be used by one side in the Yemeni civil war as a springboard for an attack upon the other side. This would have been entirely contrary to our declared policy of non-involvement.

To give the Yemeni authorities ample opportunity to withdraw their force without the need for further measures, arrangements were made for a message to be conveyed to the Republican authorities in Sana by the representative of a friendly Power. It was our hope that orders would then be given to the Yemeni force to withdraw across the frontier, along the way they had come.

The broadcast by the Republican authorities in Sana on 20th February showed that they were aware of my statement in this House on the 19th and that they intended to take no notice. Their reinforcement of the intruding party during the following days could, therefore, only be interpreted as a deliberate challenge.

In the absence of any indication that the Yemenis would move out of their own accord, the High Commissioner was authorised to issue a local warning to the intruding force and this was delivered in the form of leaflets at twelve minutes past eight o'clock local time this morning. The warning contained an assurance that if the Yemenis left their positions and withdrew from Federal territory, they would not be attacked, but that if they ignored the warning then all necessary measures would be taken to eject them by force.

Members of the Yemeni force were seen to read the warning leaflets. Precisely three hours later, when the ultimatum set in the leaflet expired with no indication of any intention of withdrawal, fire was opened upon the Yemeni positions by artillery. At half-past eleven a defiant message was received from the local Yemeni commander claiming that his force was within Yemeni territory. Artillery fire ceased at 11.40 and armoured cars of the Federal Regular Army moved forward to reconnoitre.

The High Commissioner has just told us that his latest reports tend to indicate that the Yemeni force has in the main withdrawn from the bed of the valley which they were occupying in Federal territory.

Mr. Thomson

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the boundary between the Republic of the Yemen and the Aden territory in that part of the world is very vague and undecided? The statement he has made is a very disturbing one in many respects. Would it not be far better for Her Majesty's Government to try to reopen normal diplomatic channels between the Republic of the Yemen and themselves and try to solve the dispute by peaceful means? Also, will he say why not more than three hours' notice of the ultimatum was given?

Mr. Fisher

Great care was taken to check the precise position of the Yemenis and to establish beyond doubt that they were in Federal territory.

As to the question of recognition and British representation in Sana, it win be within the hon. Gentleman's recollection that it was the wish of the Yemeni Republican authorities that we should withdraw our representative, which we did in accordance with their wishes.

When the hon. Gentleman says that too little time was given, he should remember that this Yemeni force arrived on our frontier on 29th January, four weeks ago. They fired on a patrol of the Federal guard which was sent to investigate their presence there, and one of our guards was killed. On 5th February they opened fire on a detachment of the Federal Regular Army. This is the background to this border incident. Quite honestly, while I would accept the criticism that we had been over-cautious and, perhaps, even a little dilatory in ejecting them from our territory, I should find it difficult to accept the criticism that we had been over-precipitate.

Mr. Biggs-Davison

My hon. Friend's statement makes clear that Her Majesty's Government have shown very great patience. Do the Government realise that they have the full support of very many people in the House and the country if they now do whatever is necessary to defend the integrity of territory for which we have treaty responsibilities?

Mr. Fisher

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He expresses a point of view to which I myself subscribe. We have exercised every restraint in the face of Yemeni provocation, at some risk, indeed, of losing the confidence of the people in the Federation whom we are pledged to protect.

Mr. Thomson

What reply, if any, was received to the approach in Sana made on our behalf by a friendly Power? Who was the friendly Power acting on our behalf, and what further steps are Her Majesty's Government taking to establish diplomatic negotiations with the Republic of the Yemen to achieve a peaceful solution of these disputes?

Mr. Fisher

No reply at all has been received from the Yemeni authorities, although we know, from the fact that they knew of my statement in the House last week, that they are perfectly aware of our attitude. The friendly Power through whom we sent the message was the American Government.

Mrs. Castle

Is not our refusal to recognise the Government of the Yemen an act of provocation on our part? Are not we almost alone among the Western Powers in refusing recognition of this kind, and is not our action quite contrary to that of, for example, the United States, Western Germany, and other responsible Western Powers? Is it not absurd that we should in this way cut ourselves off from normal friendly diplomatic contact with a Government whose territory runs so dangerously close to ours? Are not we asking for trouble by doing this?

Mr. Fisher

If I have explained it once in the House, I must have said it four or five times. Our criterion of recognition in the case of the Yemen is precisely the same as it has always been in every other case, that we always recognise when we see that a Government are in effective control of the great part of the country. This is not so in the Yemen. We are being perfectly consistent with our own policy of recognition in all previous cases.

Mr. Healey

Is it not a fact that, when we discussed this matter last week, the hon. Gentleman admitted that he had not the slightest idea what military activity was going on in the territories of the Aden Protectorate when I asked him whether it was the case, as widely reported, that the Sheikh of Beihan had been giving military assistance to one side in the civil war in the Yemen?

Does the reference in the hon. Gentleman's statement to the undesirability of British-protected territory being used as a springboard by one side in the civil war mean that he now concedes that the Sheikh of Beihan was giving support to the Royalists and that he has persuaded the Sheikh to cease giving this support?

Mr. Fisher

No, Sir. I said nothing of the sort last week. I said merely that, if the Sharif of Beihan was giving any assistance to the Royalist cause, this was being done without our knowledge or authority. That was all I said.

Mr. Healey

That is the point; the hon. Gentleman did not know.

Mr. Fisher

No; it is not that I did not know what was happening. I have myself no evidence to show that this assistance is, in fact, being given. Indeed, when we asked the Yemeni Government, who had complained, as the hon. Gentleman is now complaining, whether they had any evidence of assistance from Beihan for the Royalists, they produced no evidence whatever.

Mr. Grimond

May I ask the Minister, first, whether there are still any British nationals or British-protected persons in the Yemen, and, if so, whether he is satisfied about their safety? Secondly, apart from the one casualty he mentioned, is he aware of any other casualties in the fighting? What is our position in the Yemen? Have we just broken off diplomatic relations, or are we in some kind of state of emergency or war?

Mr. Fisher

We have no diplomatic representation in the Yemen at all. I am not sure whether there are any British subjects of a non-official type left in the Yemen. I think that there may be a few, but, if so, they can be numbered on the fingers of one hand. I have no information about casualties which may have been incurred during this morning's local fighting.

Mr. Sorensen

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the main administrative centres are in the hands of the Republicans? In those circumstances, will he reconsider his refusal to recognise the new Republic and, instead, recognise it forthwith?

Mr. Fisher

No, Sir. As I said last week, many, but not all, of the larger towns in the Yemen are in the hands of the Republican authorities. On the other hand, the whole periphery of the country—all the mountainous areas and all the tribal areas, which are probably larger geographically than the town areas in the middle and certainly larger vis-à-vis population—is in Royalist hands. It is, therefore, impossible to say that the Republicans have complete control of the country, and, as I have said again and again, that is the criterion of our recognition of a Government.