HC Deb 04 July 1963 vol 680 cc601-3
The Minister of State for Foreign Affairs (Mr. Peter Thomas)

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, and that of the House, I should like to make a short statement on the British Service men detained in the Yemen.

I am glad to be able to confirm to the House that the 16 British Service men who have been held prisoner in the Yemen have arrived safely in Aden. I believe that they are all well.

The terms of the agreement under which they were released have been negotiated on our behalf by Mr. Cortada, the United States Chargé ďAffaires in Taiz. We authorised him to tell the Yemen authorities that we regretted the accidental crossing of the frontier, and that all possible steps would be taken by the British military authorities concerned to see that there would be no repetition of the incident.

As to the payment of compensation for casualties incurred by the Yemenis in the skirmish, as well as for damage to property, we left Mr. Cortada discretion within the limit of a few thousand pounds. I do not know the exact details yet, but the sum of £150,000, mentioned in the Press today, is not correct. It is probable that it will be in the region of 150,000 shillings local currency, which is equivalent to £7,500. It might be less.

A telegram has already been sent to Mr. Rusk, expressing the thanks of Her Majesty's Government for the devoted work which Mr. Cortada and other members of the United States Foreign Service have put in during this unfortunate affair. Without their skill and patience we could not have got the men back so soon.

Mr. Gordon Walker

May I express the very great pleasure, naturally, of right hon. and hon. Members on this side at the release of our men and say how glad we are on behalf of their relatives. I am also glad that the Government had the good sense to express regret for what was clearly an accident, and we should like to associate ourselves with the hon. Gentleman's thanks for the good offices of the American authorities.

Now that this matter has been closed in this sense, we should like one or two matters which are not clear from the statement to be cleared up. We should like the original question to be cleared up, namely, how it came about that this operation was ever undertaken at all and how men and women were sent on so dangerous an operation so near the border, resulting in the expenditure of taxpayers' money—it may be only £7,500—but particularly in the death of four British soldiers, which has caused very great anxiety. We will want this to be cleared up in a further statement in due course. We are very concerned about the way in which this operation was undertaken and authorised by someone, and we want to know about that.

Mr. Thomas

I can quite appreciate the right hon. Member's anxiety about the details of this matter. As he will realise, it is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Minister of Defence and I cannot possibly answer it. However, I know that my right hon. Friend will note what the right hon. Gentleman has said.

Mr. W. Yates

Would my hon. Friend be kind enough to convey the thanks of the House to Dr. Lukman, who spent some time in Taiz and who came up from Aden to assist in the release of these soldiers? Secondly, would he agree that it is time that Her Majesty's Government had a look at the borders and the frontiers between the Protectorate and the Yemen? Will he consider whether it is really worth while Her Majesty's Government going on recognising the Government of the Imam of the Yemen?

Mr. Thomas

The question of recognition is a rather different one. I will certainly note my hon. Friend's other questions.

Mr. Shinwell

Is not an inquiry into this incident being conducted by the War Office and will not a report be made to the House when the inquiry has been completed? Can the hon. Gentleman say when the report will be made available to the House?

Mr. Thomas

I am sorry, I cannot answer those questions, because they are solely within the province of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Defence. My right hon. Friend said, however, when informing the House about this matter, that an inquiry was being put in train.

Mr. Wall

Can my hon. Friend say whether the transport used by our soldiers has been returned? Will he recognise that this whole business has resulted in considerable loss of prestige to this country? Will he, therefore, give every consideration to making the investigation as public as possible and to publishing the report to allay anxiety?

Mr. Thomas

I am sure that my right hon. Friend will give full consideration to what my hon. Friend has suggested.

Mr. A. Henderson

Is it the fact that these troops went into the Yemen in uniform and not in mufti?

Mr. Thomas

Yes, Sir, that is quite true.

Sir H. Legge-Bourke

My hon. Friend will remember that in the earlier descriptions of the incident the word"ambush" was fairly frequently used. Would he not agree that an ambush presupposes that it is known that the people to be ambushed are likely to come? Does he now have confirmation, however, that this was a pure accident and that there were no troops deliberately on the other side of the frontier in Yemen laying up to catch our people?

Mr. Thomas

I must apologise to my hon. Friend and the House, but I have no information about the details of this unfortunate incident.