HC Deb 06 July 1967 vol 749 cc1990-3

Mr. Ronald Bell (by Private Notice) asked the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs whether he has any further information about the two pilots of the British aircraft which was forcibly diverted to Algeria.

The Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs (Mr. George Brown)

No, Sir.

As the House knows, Her Majesty's Consul-General in Algiers, who is also the Head of the British Interests Section of the Swiss Embassy there, has made repeated inquiries with the Algerian authorities since 1st July, when he first learnt of the incident.

The Swiss Government, who protect British interests in Algeria, were asked on 3rd July to make formal representations. This has been done and the Swiss Ambassador had a further meeting with the Algerian Ministry of Foreign Affairs today. I am awaiting a full report on this from the Swiss Government. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State yesterday reinforced our representations with the Kuwait Ambassador in London who looks after Algerian interests here.

I regard it as intolerable that there should so far have been no response to any of these representations. It is outrageous that our repeated requests for information about the two pilots should be disregarded in this way.

I am urgently considering what further steps are open to the Government if the representations being made today have no effect.

Mr. Bell

Is it not deplorable and a gross breach of international custom that these men should not have been seen by anyone but their captors for six days? In considering their future steps if diplomatic representations fail, will Her Majesty's Government have in mind, among other things, the British commitment to buy large quantities of Algerian gas on terms which are now very disadvantageous to us?

Mr. Brown

As I said, this is quite intolerable and quite out of keeping with international custom and we must seriously consider what we shall do about it if it persists. I am not sure whether the hon. and learned Gentleman knows that the Algerians cut off the gas supply at the outbreak of the Middle East crisis.

Lord Balniel

As these men have been held incommunicado for six days, is not this rapidly becoming a major international outrage? If our representations are not heeded, and the Algerian Government continues to flout international convention, will the right hon. Gentleman look very seriously at our existing trade arrangements with Algeria?

Mr. Brown

It is a little early to talk in quite those terms, but, as I said, I am considering seriously what steps are now open to us if the present representations fail. However, I hope that we will all bear in mind that we are here concerned with the well-being of two pilots and that we might not help that by the fierceness of our statements today.

Mr. Molloy

I urge my right hon. Friend to take all possible swift action to ensure the safe return of these two pilots to their families. However, has the Foreign Office had any further discussions with the firm which allowed this plane to be chartered to see whether anything would emerge from such an examination to prevent a recurrence of this kind of incident?

Mr. Brown

I understand that while I was away Mr. Gregory told the Department that he knew nothing about what had happened. Of course, it is a fact that if private firms charter their aeroplanes to companies in other small countries like Liechtenstein, knowing nothing of what the purpose of the trip is, it is possible that, on occasion, they will get into difficulties out of which we shall have to try to dig them. However, I have asked Mr. Gregory to come into the Department to talk to my people about it today and to tell us all he knows about the incident.

Sir W. Teeling

Is not the right hon. Gentleman aware that this issue also involves the problem of the Congo? Has he contacted the Congolese about this matter? Is he not aware that this aircraft was chartered by a firm which is linked with Leopoldville? Is it not probably true that it had been instructed to tell the pilots to take these people to Algeria?

Mr. Brown

The hon. Gentleman must be responsible for the facts which he has given to the House. I have said that I have asked Mr. Gregory to come to the Foreign Office and to tell us what he knows about the situation. I do not think that the Congo arises out of this Question. It is with Algeria that I am for the moment concerned.

Mr. Paget

Is it not a fact that British ships have been chartered by foreign companies from time immemorial, but that they do not thereby lose the protection of the British flag? In this case has not Mr. Tshombe—and is not this the most important point—been seized from the protection of the British flag and is not this the greatest affront which could be made to our country?

Mr. Brown

The Question is about two British pilots who are detained in Algeria and I am answering that Question. I will answer any other Question which my hon. and learned Friend might like to ask.

Mr. Hastings

Why has it taken all this time—a week—to ask Mr. Gregory to come to the right hon. Gentleman's Department?

Mr. Brown

Mr. Gregory has been giving information to the Department. I have been away for the last two days. The Department has the information which Mr. Gregory chose to give it. I have decided this morning, among other things, that I would like him to come personally and tell us all he knows about it.

Sir J. Hobson

Will the Foreign Secretary make it clear that the hi-jacking of British planes is a criminal offence under British law and that the British Government will do what they can to bring to book those responsible?

Mr. Brown

Yes, we will do what we can to bring those responsible to account for what they have done.

The House may like to know that I have just had passed to me a note, since I started answering this Question, which is from the Swiss Government in Berne and which tells me that the Swiss Ambassador had an interview with a senior Algerian official this morning and was told that the pilots were in good condition. They are not in gaol. They are in the situation of house arrest. No charges have been made against them, but they are being held for questioning. I tell the House that because it is entitled to have the latest information which we have.

In my view, that does not alter the situation that the Algerians are in default in not letting us have immediate access to the pilots.

Sir W. Teeling

On a point of order. In view of the unsatisfactory nature of the Foreign Secretary's replies, I beg to give notice that I shall raise the matter on the Adjournment at the earliest possible moment.

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