HC Deb 04 May 1964 vol 694 cc908-14
Mr. D. Healey

(by Private Notice) asked the Prime Minister when he will make a statement about the present military operations in the Federation of South Arabia and the despatch of further British troops.

The Prime Minister (Sir Alec Douglas-Home)

The present military operations in the Radfan area of the South Arabian Federation are designed to put an end to the series of attacks which have been made recently on users of the Aden-Dhala road by hostile tribesmen operating in that area. These operations are essentially of an internal security nature, taking place wholly within the frontiers of the South Arabian Federation The welfare and safety of the people of Aden and the Federation has been menaced by frequent acts of violence along this important road.

The Federal Government, lacking the military resources to deal with subversion on this scale, asked for British assistance. Our forces, including one major unit, are co-operating with theirs. In view of the strength of the opposition encountered, it has become necessary to reinforce from Aden. This is being done by the despatch of troops already available there within the garrison and the 1st Battalion King's Own Scottish Borderers are being despatched from Britain to take their places in Aden State.

There is no doubt that violent subversion in the Radfan area has been encouraged and sustained from the Yemen; the opposition encountered by our troops is further evidence that support from across the frontier has been on a large scale.

The House will wish to convey their deep sympathy and sense of distress to the relatives of the British casualties who number two killed and three wounded.

I ought to say today that reports that the bodies of the two dead were mutilated have not as yet been confirmed or refuted. The General-Officer-Commanding made his statement on the basis of information from the Federal National Guard.

We have no direct diplomatic representation in the Yemen ourselves, but the United States Government, at our request, are making urgent inquiries of their representative at Taiz. As soon as any definite information is received I will see that the House is informed.

Mr. Healey

While thanking the Prime Minister for that statement, may I say that all of us, on both side of the House and outside, read the reports of these mutilations with horror and revulsion, and that we would wish to express our deep sympathy with the families of those concerned and our admiration for the British troops who are fighting in such conditions?

As the report has not been confirmed or refuted, and in view of the profound indignation throughout the country at the report, can the Prime Minister say whether it was made by the local commander in Aden, or authorised by a British Minister?

I do not think that the House would wish to explore the wider military and political implications of the situation at this stage, particularly before we know the full truth of the details of yesterday's incidents, but could the Prime Minister say, in the light of the circumstances, why the British commander of the Federal forces of South Arabia resigned his post only two weeks after taking it over?

The Prime Minister

The answer to the first question is that the statement by the officer commanding was not authorised by a British Minister. Any commanding officer in any theatre can give a Press conference and I think that the officer commanding felt it necessary to deal with the rumour which was going around and which had been received from a Federal National Guard source. As I have said, it has not yet been confirmed or refuted, but he felt it necessary to deal with it at once.

The resignation of the officer commanding the Federal forces, although he had taken up his post and accepted the contract, was for reasons entirely different from, and not all connected with, this affair. He decided that for personal reasons he did not wish to take on the contract.

Sir P. Agnew

Would my right hon. Friend confirm that the incursion into South Arabian territory comes solely from that part of the Yemen in the occupation of the Republican authorities and is believed to be stimulated by inflammatory speeches and other action in the form of physical and material military aid from the United Arab Republic? Will he take the opportunity of making representations in the proper quarter with regard to that and the cessation of such incidents which militate against peace in the area?

The Prime Minister

The answer to both questions is "Yes, Sir"; that has already been done.

Mr. Grimond

Everybody will wish to express his sympathy with and gratitude to the troops in the area in this very unpleasant form of warfare. Most people will be glad to know that some of the distress caused to the families of the dead men may be avoided if these rumours of beheading prove to be untrue.

Does the Prime Minister remember that on 16th April he said that the United Nations must protect and help us to demarcate the frontier between the South Arabian Federation and the Yemen? Can he tell us whether the United Nations has taken any steps to protect or help us in this matter and whether he considers that this is the root cause of these troubles? If so, will this be cured by a demarcation of the frontier; if not, what other steps may be taken?

The Prime Minister

We have made further representations to the United Nations since that date and Signor Spinelli, the Secretary-General's representative, has been talking to the representative of the Republican Government of the Yemen, but the only response has been that any observers to be on the frontier must be only on the side of the frontier which is part of the territory of the Aden Federation.

The answer is that nothing has been done by the United Nations to help us to demarcate the frontier. I hope that the demarcation will make a lot of difference to the state on the frontier, but I see little chance of this happening yet.

Mr. W. Yates

Will the Prime Minister tell the House and the country what response, on his authority, or that of the Foreign Secretary, was sent to the President and the Foreign Secretary of the Republic of the Yemen, whom I saw after seeing the ambassador in Cairo, who asked Her Majesty's Government to assist them and the United Nations in restoring peace in South-West Arabia? May I remind him that the American Embassy knows of no such message being passed and that neither can I find any reply to a courteous message of good will?

Does the Prime Minister realise, secondly—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] This is very important to the whole country—that the bombardment of Fort Harib will mean that blood money will be extracted for 25 other people? What political advice did he have before he did it?

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend may remember that we made a most definite proposal to the Secretary-General of the United Nations for which we wished to have Egyptian and Yemeni support—that is, that the frontier should be demarcated, which is the practical thing to do now—but that we have had no response from the Egyptians or from the Yemen. We can only try to help the Secretary-General to get some kind of action taken on the frontier. This must be the first thing which will help the peace.

Mr. Speaker

Mr. Wigg.

Mr. Yates

The Prime Minister has failed to answer my question.

Mr. Wigg

Will the right hon. Gentleman permit me to express my respectful sympathy to the families of those who have suffered and also to express my sympathy with the officer commanding 22nd Special Air Service Regiment and all those who serve under his command? It is a unit which has served this country with the greatest possible distinction.

Is the Prime Minister aware that he was a little misleading—I am sure unintentionally—when he referred to the officer commanding making a statement? The Press conference yesterday was given not by the officer commanding, but by no less a person than the General Officer Commanding, Middle East Land Forces, who was assisted at that Press conference by Brigadier Hargroves?

The right hon. Gentleman will be surely aware that yesterday the telephone lines were hot when the Press heard this story, because, as has been said, it caused revulsion throughout the country. If he is now uncertain whether this terribly wounding statement is true, ought not the Government yesterday to have made a statement that they were not sure whether the facts were as stated?

The Prime Minister

We wanted to do our best to see whether we could ascertain the truth. That is all that we want to find. I am obliged to the hon. Member for Dudley (Mr. Wigg) for the correction. He is right. We wanted to ascertain the truth, and I came to the House at the earliest possible moment to make a statement.

Sir A. V. Harvey

May I ask my right hon. Friend whether he is aware that if the United Nations takes as long to come to this country as it did to Cyprus the situation may well get out of hand in the meantime? Will he undertake to make further representations to the United Nations to send observers as soon as possible, and make it clear that if the British forces have to be strengthened we will not hesitate to draw on our forces in Germany to do so?

Finally, will my right hon. Friend confirm or deny reports in certain sections of the Press that the United Arab Republic has small atomic weapons in its possession?

Mr. Speaker

That bit is out of order. The rest of the question is in order.

The Prime Minister

I am sorry that that bit is out of order, Mr. Speaker.

We shall move troops from Germany if that should prove to be necessary. We have made recent representations to the Secretary-General, and we shall renew them, because, as I have said, I think that the most practical thing to do is to get observers on the frontier as soon as possible. We have no wish to quarrel either with the Yemen or with Egypt over this matter. All that we want to see is the frontier demarcated and respected by the Yemen.

Mr. A. Henderson

In view of the constant fulminations of President Nasser, including the one that is reported in the Press this afternoon, and the fact that there are 40,000 Egyptian troops in the Yemen, are not these incursions of several hundred tribesmen much less serious than the background situation to this problem?

Can we take it from the Prime Minister that Her Majesty's Government will not be slow to have this matter discussed in the Security Council, in addition to sending observers to ascertain the facts on the border? Can we take it that this will not be allowed to drift into an extremely dangerous situation?

The Prime Minister

We are very well aware of the danger of the background situation, as the right hon. and learned Gentleman described it. I sometimes wish that more people had been aware of this. We on this side of the House have been very much aware of it for a very long time.

Let me repeat, if I may, that we do not wish any quarrel with Egypt or with the Yemen on this matter. The first thing to do is to get the frontier de- marcated and United Nations observers on that frontier. I very much hope that the Secretary-General will be able to respond, but, as long as the representatives of the Yemen resist the placing of observers on the frontier, one must admit that it is difficult for the Secretary-General to proceed.

Mr. Biggs-Davison

While agreeing with what my right hon. Friend said, may I ask him whether it does not follow that the United Nations should also turn its attention to the disengagement agreement, having regard to the disturbing public statement by President Nasser that it would take some years before it could be implemented by the U.A.R.?

The Prime Minister

The object of the United Nations policy—and everybody's object—has been to try to create conditions under which Colonel Nasser could withdraw Egyptian troops within a reasonable time. The only result has been that whereas there were 28,000 a year ago, as the right hon. and learned Gentleman said, there are now about 40,000. I think that the most practical thing to do is first to demarcate the frontier so that there can be no further encroachment.

Mr. Healey

I wonder whether, to put this matter into perspective, the right hon. Gentleman will agree that there have been dissident tribes in this part of the Federation for very many years, that fighting has gone on between British forces and tribesmen since long before the revolution in the Yemen, and that the Imam's Government, no less than the Republican Government—this is a very important matter, as the House and the Prime Minister know—gave assistance to dissident tribes long before the present situation developed?

The Prime Minister

Yes, Sir, but the difference is that whereas, before, there were dissident tribes, now these tribes are equipped with mortars, radio, and automatic weapons from a foreign source.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. We cannot go on with this without a Question before the House.