§ Mr. R. A. Butler
(by Private Notice) asked the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs if he will make a statement about the latest situation in the Congo with reference to the British subjects involved.
§ The Minister of State for Foreign Affairs (Mr. George Thomson)
Yes, Sir. The Congolese Army reached Stanleyville yesterday morning. A few hours earlier, Belgian paratroops were dropped to rescue the civilian non-Congolese held prisoner there, in accordance with the plan which I described to the House on 23rd November. This was, as the House knows, conceived as a purely humanitarian operation. M. Spaak has stated and it is clearly understood that the Belgian troops will be withdrawn as soon as their rescue work has been completed. Stanleyville was effectively occupied yesterday and, despite some resistance, the rebel leaders are all reported to have fled.
About 1,000 Europeans and Asians were evacuated to Leopoldville yesterday and about 1,000 more are being evacuated today. There are estimated so far to be between 30 and 40 Europeans dead, of whom 30 are Belgians. Eighty wounded arrived yesterday in Leopoldville. The number of Congolese dead is not yet known.
The only Commonwealth citizen known to have died, a Canadian missionary, was killed by retreating rebels outside Stanleyville. Our Vice-Consul has reported that all British citizens in Stanleyville are believed to be safe. Thirteen British subjects are known to have been evacuated to Leopoldville, including three children. They are in good health. Fourteen Canadians and 100 Indian citizens have arrived safely at 1278 Leopoldville. We have so far no other information about British subjects.
A Royal Air Force ambulance team with medical supplies and food arrived in Stanleyville this morning. Our aircraft are actively assisting in the evacuation.
§ Mr. Butler
Will the hon. Gentleman undertake to keep the House informed of the further progress of this humanitarian operation which, so far as British subjects and the great majority of Commonwealth citizens are concerned, has been successful?
§ Mr. Thomson
Yes, Sir. I certainly undertake to keep the House fully informed of the progress of this operation.
§ Mr. Driberg
While all of us will have learned with relief and thankfulness of the saving of these many lives, does my hon. Friend agree that it is entirely a matter of speculation what would have happened—[HON. MEMBERS: "No."] Of course it is; it is not susceptible of proof either way. Do not be so stupid. It is entirely a matter of speculation what would have happened if this airlift had not taken place. Does my hon. Friend also agree that the terrible massacre which did occur occurred immediately the Belgian paratroopers started to land—a consequence predictable and predicted in this House on Monday?
§ Mr. Thomson
As I told the House on 23rd November, the decision that had to he taken here was an agonising decision and one of immense difficulty and delicacy. Her Majesty's Government's part in it was, of course, confined to providing the staging facilities through Ascension Island. But before that stage had been reached every possible effort had been made to secure guarantees from the rebels of the safety of the civilians in and around Stanleyville. That was the only way in which loss of life could have been avoided.
The rebels in Stanleyville, regrettably, refused to give any such assurance, nor were they willing to allow any International Red Cross aircraft in to evacuate the civilians there. It was in the light of this that the very difficult decision had to be taken.
In my view, if the troops which were advancing overland to Stanleyville had advanced without the intervention of 1279 this aerial operation I am convinced that the loss of life would have been much greater than it has been.
§ Mr. Fell
I wonder whether the Minister would join with me in paying a tribute to the Belgians—[HON. MEMBERS: "And Americans."]—and Americans for the magnificent way in which they behaved in this rescue operation? May I ask him again the question I asked him on Monday? I realise that it was very difficult to answer on Monday. May I ask what was the date on which the first British initiative was taken, and also, did we at any stage offer active British help in the rescue operation to co-operate with the Belgians other than offering them staging facilities?
§ Mr. Thomson
I am sure that we all deeply regret the terrible loss of life which has taken place in these conflicts in the Congo, whether in this particular situation or in general, and I am sure that we are all extremely glad that the operation which has taken place has been as successful as it has. I emphasise its humanitarian purpose and the fact that the Belgian paratroopers who came in for this rescue purpose will go out as soon as the tasks of rescue are completed.
From June onward Her Majesty's Government made every effort to convey warnings to the British subjects in the north-east Congo by wireless. Every attempt was made to give the people there what opportunity they could be given to evacuate themselves to places of safety. But, as the hon. Member knows, the communications of Stanleyville have been almost completely disrupted and it has proved in latter weeks impossible to get permission for the International Red Cross or any similar organisation to fly in planes to effect rescue in advance of the situation which was reached.
§ Mr. Bellenger
As the responsibility for rescue of British citizens is that of Her Majesty's Government and apparently the Belgian Government have assisted in this way, will Her Majesty's Government now officially thank the Belgian Government for what they have done?
§ Mr. Thomson
Of course, Her Majesty's Government are immensely grateful for the courage shown by the 1280 Belgian soldiers and for the assistance given by the Americans in the rescue of those civilians who were British citizens.
§ Mr. Thorpe
May I ask the Minister a little more about British subjects now evacuated to Leopoldville? Can we have an assurance that these citizens, many of whom have lost their houses and possessions, will be repatriated to this country if they wish and that no financial obstacle will stand in the way of that being done?
§ Mr. Thomson
Her Majesty's Government will give every possible assistance to those in Stanleyville who wish to return to this country. Some, of course, may not wish to return here, but wish to take up posts in Stanleyville as soon as conditions are suitable for them to do so. But we shall certainly help all those who wish for assistance.
§ Mr. Rankin
It has been stated in the Press that a mercenary called "The mad major" was leading the troops in the advance on Stanleyville. Could my hon. Friend say whether or not that is true? If it is true, was it very wise?
§ Mr. Biggs-Davison
Is not the hon. Gentleman aware that nearly every African State employs white mercenaries for training and assisting their armed forces, and does not this whole affair show that the Congolese need assistance in bringing back peace to their country? Will the Government, therefore, be very helpful to the mission which, I understand, is coming to Britain from President Tshombe's Government?
§ Mr. Thomson
I pay tribute again to the help given by the Belgian soldiers in this operation, as a humanitarian operation, but I am quite sure that by far the best way for the immensely difficult problems of the Congo to be solved is by the Congolese people themselves, with the assistance of the other African States, and that the assistance of the developed world to the Congo can be advanced much better and more constructively in terms of economic and technical assistance rather than by the intervention of mercenaries.
§ Several Hon. Members rose—