HC Deb 21 June 1967 vol 748 cc1725-36
Sir Alec Douglas-Home

(by Private Notice) asked the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs whether he will make a statement about the mutiny in the South Arabian Federal Army.

The Minister of State for Foreign Affairs (Mr. George Thomson)

I need hardly tell the House that yesterday was a day of black tragedy in South Arabia with a sad waste of British and Arab lives.

The train of events so far established is this. As the House knows, the Federal forces have had to be reorganised and expanded for their wider duties under independence by 1968. This involves the amalgamation of the Federal Regular Army, and most of the Federal Guard into the South Arabian Army; and the formation of the South Arabian Police from the remaining Federal Guard elements and existing police forces.

The South Arabian Army and the South Arabian Police, as it is to be called, were formally established early this month. The pace, for reasons of which my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary reminded the House on 19th June, has had to be rapid, but the programme has hitherto gone to schedule.

About 10 days ago a group of officers of the former Federal Guard improperly petitioned the Federal Minister of Defence about alleged grievances they felt, basically for reasons of personal and tribal jealousy. This led to the suspension of the four officers primarily concerned from duty on 17th June. The disturbances yesterday arose directly from this dispute.

Disturbances started with a mob of South Arabian Army apprentices and soldiers demonstrating at two Army camps, apparently against tribal rivals. A good deal of damage was done after they had rushed the guard room and the officers' mess. Order was restored after about two hours. There was apparently no shooting there and no British troops were involved in that case.

Later, at about 10 o'clock, members of the South Arabian Police at Champion Lines Camp attacked the armoury there. Shooting broke out in the camp and was also directed at random outside the camp and at Royal Air Force installations on the adjoining airfield.

As a result of this firing, seven soldiers were killed and seven wounded, when their vehicle was machine-gunned by a mutineer as it passed outside Champion Lines, and two Aden police and one British civilian were killed and one British civilian wounded when driving also in the same way.

As British lives, including those of women, were in danger both within and outside Champion Lines the British Commander of the South Arabian Field Force, a section of the South Arabian Police, asked for British military intervention. This request was endorsed by the Federal Supreme Council and was acceded to. Champion Lines is within Aden State where the British authorities are responsible for internal security.

A company of British infantry thereafter entered Champion Lines. They came under fire and suffered one killed and five wounded, but the situation was brought under control just after noon. In total, I regret to have to inform the House that in the shooting outside the Crater area of Aden 10 British Servicemen were killed and 29 wounded, while one British civilian was killed and another wounded.

About 10.30 yesterday morning, some half an hour after the trouble at Champion Lines which I have been describing, began, South Arabian Police at the Federal capital of Al Ittihad seized Government buildings there, did some damage, and took up positions to resist any attempt to bring in British troops. There was no firing, and the reports I have suggest that no expatriates were molested in the course of this. The situation in this case came under control shortly afterwards.

I would like to emphasise at this stage that British troops only had to be employed to deal with a mutiny among the new South Arabian Police Force where British lives were threatened. At no time were they employed against the South Arabian Army. The troubles in the South Arabian Army were dealt with effectively by that Army without our involvement.

I now come to the events in the Crater district of Aden. There, a general strike had been called the previous day, and there, yesterday morning, a false rumour was spread that British troops had fired on the South Arabian Army. The Aden State armed police reacted to this firing indiscriminately. Terrorists took advantage of the confusion and of the difficult geography and congestion of Crater district and widespread trouble ensued. Armed men secured the release of about 170 ordinary convicts from Crater gaol. Some of the gaol-breakers are reported to have climbed the minaret of a mosque and claimed over the mosque's loudspeakers that they were released detainees. When darkness fell the British forces were withdrawn to positions surrounding Crater rather than in it.

The situation there remains serious, and has been complicated by a water shortage caused by a fractured main. Shooting is still taking place. Public buildings and commercial premises have been damaged. The High Commissioner reported last evening that it would take a day or more to restore law and order in the Crater district.

I regret to tell the House that there have been a number of British military casualties in Crater. There are at present 12 British Servicemen reported missing. I know that the House will understand me when I say that I prefer not to make an estimate of the details of these casualties till we have official confirmation in the interests of the families of those serving in Aden.

I wish to assure the House of our concern for the British civil community and particularly those numbers of banks staff and other who work in Crater and who have had to go through the experience of the serious disturbances there. I also wish to tell the House that the High Commissioner has praised the admirable restraint and courage of the British forces under extreme provocation, which, in his view, have prevented this tragic but unpremeditated clash becoming something even more serious. I know that the House would wish to join me in this tribute by the High Commissioner.

I need hardly add that the authorities in Aden are determined to bring matters under full control.

The House will understand that with all the authorities concerned busy trying to settle the trouble they have not yet been able to give me a complete analysis of the origins, conduct, and the lessons for the future. I think, therefore, that I should say no more today, but I shall, of course, give the House fuller information the moment it is possible to do so.

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

This is, as the Minister has said, a story of tragedy. We on this side of the House would like to send our sympathy, along with that of the other side of the House, to the relatives who have suffered such losses.

May I ask the right hon. Gentleman three questions? What action do the Government propose to take in respect of British families left in Aden? What is the Governor's recommendation now—this was a question I asked in the debate we had a few days ago—about the call in of arms and the possible application of martial law in a situation of this kind?

When the Minister talks about the lesson, will he make it quite clear that the Government's plan for the withdrawing of troops is sufficiently flexible to allow for sufficient protection for lives up to and if necessary beyond the date of independence, and that, if necessary, the Government will reinforce all troops so that internal order shall be maintained?

Mr. Thomson

We are, of course, determined to maintain law and order in Aden. We are determined to ensure the safe withdrawal of our troops. The Government will not hesitate to take any necessary action to secure this basic aim.

I was asked a question about British families. These families are already being evacuated at a fairly fast pace under arrangements which have already been made and which have nothing to do with the present crisis. I think that the last of the families is due out of Aden in July. But we shall have to study the events of yesterday and today to find out whether this time-table still remains the right time-table.

As I told the right hon. Gentleman in our debate on Monday, the question of arms in illegal possession in Aden is one of which the new High Commissioner is actively seized and he has been taking action about it. These events will expedite the various steps which he has in mind.

Mr. Philip Noel-Baker

May I ask my right hon. Friend three questions? First, does not this mutiny, the general strike and the wider plots which the Federal Government have found in Crater prove the total instability of this constitution and system which the right hon. Member for Streatham (Mr. Sandys) devised?

Secondly, while we pay tribute to the British soldiers and their restraint, is it justifiable to ask them to suffer wounds and death in a cause which is doomed to final and futile defeat?

Thirdly, will not the Government reconsider, as the Secretary of State on Monday said they might, their whole policy and ask the United Nations to negotiate a settlement, as the Government have long said that they were ready to do, instead of asking the United Nations to accept a fait accompli and responsibility for its execution?

Mr. Hugh Fraser

Are you a murderer?

Mr. Thomson

I should like to ask my right hon. Friend and hon. Members on both sides of the House, who, I know, feel deeply about this matter, to concentrate at this point on what needs to be done to restore law and order in Crater and to prevent any further loss of life—

Mr. Francis Noel-Baker

On a point of order. I apologise for interrupting the Minister, but I distinctly heard a former Under-Secretary of State for War call my father a murderer.

Hon. Members

Kick him out.

Mr. Speaker

I am always rather troubled when hon. Members bring to the notice of Mr. Speaker interventions which he has not heard. [Hors. MEMBERS: "Oh."] I need no help. But if a right hon. Gentleman did call another light hon. Gentleman a murderer, then he must withdraw it.

Hon. Members

Stand up.

Mr. Hugh Fraser

I do withdraw. All I would say is that the speech just made by the right hon. Member for Derby, South (Mr. Philip Noel-Baker) was entirely—

Mr. Speaker

Order. Withdrawals must be simple withdrawals. The right hon. Gentleman has withdrawn.

Mr. Thomson

I was attempting to answer the very serious question asked by my right hon. Friend the Member for Derby, South (Mr. Philip Noel-Baker) and to plead with him and the House at this moment to concentrate on supporting our troops and the High Commissioner and the Federal Government in restoring the situation in Aden and in South Arabia, and not at this point in time to raise these wider issues.

I would simply beg my right hon. Friend not to jump to too-quick conclusions on the basis of the tragic events of these 24 hours. It is quite clear that the actual mutinies themselves were not politically motivated. They were the result of internal jealousies and rivalries inside the forces, which are perhaps understandable given the very rapid rate of expansion which there has been. There is no evidence that they are linked with F.L.O.S.Y. or the N.L.F.

Mr. Thorpe

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the whole House will condemn this tragic waste of human life? May I ask him two questions?

First, will he say whether he regards this as being an internal and purely spontaneous outburst, or a result of some form of external political pressure?

Secondly, may I ask him, without committing himself today, to bear in mind that we may be set on a train of events to try to keep intact a Federal arrangement which is doomed to failure and which may well involve this country and, indeed, the Arab people in the area in a tragic loss of life which could be averted if we recognised the political realities of the situation.

Mr. Thomson

As I say, all the evidence that we have is that these events inside the Federal forces yesterday were entirely internal and were not related to any external political causes. Of course, when the chain of events had led to the riots and disturbances in Crater, obviously the extremist organisations, which had already been conducting a 24-hour general strike, inevitably became mixed up in them.

I am sure that the whole House, and certainly Her Majesty's Government, are very conscious of the dangers among which we move in this situation. Our basic aim is to ensure that the withdrawal of our forces from Aden takes place in peace, with the minimum of bloodshed. Our second aim is to ensure that we leave behind an independent South Arabia with a good chance of survival. I ask the House, in view of the deep feelings aroused by these events yesterday, not to say things today which might imperil the possibility of that future for South Arabia.

Mr. Bellenger

Although we all recognise that Her Majesty's Government are responsible for maintaining law and order until we evacuate, it nevertheless seems unfortunate that British troops should be called in by the authorities there and shot up without any possibility of retaliating or protecting themselves. Does not my right hon. Friend therefore think that in this or similar circumstances martial law is necessary in such a case?

Mr. Thomson

The High Commissioner is already operating under substantially wider powers, and I do not think that this is a difficulty. Naturally, we shall draw his attention to what was said by the right hon. Gentleman and also by my right hon. Friend.

As for the involvement of British troops, no one will minimise the tragedy of the role that our troops had to fulfil yesterday, which they did with such high courage. But I remind the House that they were asked to do so by the Federal Government and by a British officer leading these forces, and that one of the considerations which we had to have in mind was that British lives, including the lives of British women, were involved. I am sure that the House will support the use of British troops in that situation.

Lord Balniel

The Minister said that he is prepared to re-examine the timetable of the withdrawal of British Service families. Is it not clear that Aden is not a suitable place for British women and children to be living? Will he consider the immediate withdrawal of these families?

Mr. Thomson

The withdrawal is actively under way. I have undertaken that we will consider urgently whether it is necessary to speed up the pace of the withdrawal. I do not think that I can go further than that at the moment.

Mr. Mayhew

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the action taken by the Government and by the Aden authorities to restore law and order and to prevent a recurrence of these tragedies will have the very widest support in the House? But will he also not recognise that at least certain aspects of the Foreign Secretary's statement on Monday will now require to be looked at again?

Mr. Thomson

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for the first part of his question. Naturally, we shall have to look very closely all the time at developments in Aden and South Arabia in the months which lie ahead between now and independence. But I should tell my right hon. Friend and the House frankly that there is no evidence as to the sources of these troubles yesterday which would lead us to believe that we need to reconsider the policy statement made on Monday.

Mr. Sandys

May I join other hon. Members in expressing my deep sorrow at the tragic loss of life? While this is not a moment to engage in controversy, in view of the attack made upon me by the right hon. Member for Derby, South (Mr. Philip Noel-Baker) may I ask the Minister whether he agrees that mutinies of this kind are not unusual in emerging countries?

May I ask him to assure us that he will give to the Federal Government the fullest possible support in the difficult task of reorganising and strengthening their forces as we did in 1964 when we were called into Tanganyika, Uganda and Kenya to suppress mutinies in those three countries?

Mr. Thomson

The overriding obligation of Her Majesty's Government is to contribute to the maintenance of law and order in Aden and South Arabia so long as we have responsibility there. The Federal Government are the legal Government of South Arabia; and we shall give the legal Government of South Arabia all necessary support to ensure, as far as we possibly can, that the safety of people is preserved.

To answer the larger and important point mentioned by the right hon. Gentleman, it may, perhaps, help us to see yesterday's events in perspective—events which loom very large, and in a frightening way, in our minds just now —if I remind the House that there are countries which are members of the Commonwealth today, good and respected members, which passed through the same ordeal that South Arabia is passing through now.

Mr. Heffer

Would my right hon. Friend give two assurances? First, will he say that not only will the families of Servicemen be withdrawn at the earliest possible moment, but that there will be no question of extending the stay of our troops there beyond the date announced in the House on Monday?

Secondly, will he take a further look at the whole question of the negotiations and discussions with the nationalist leaders, for is it not clear that the only real answer to getting a peaceful solution in South Arabia is the establishment of an independent State for Aden itself?

Mr. Thomson

It has been said many times in the House that, whatever may be the other deep disputes about the future of South Arabia among the various political groups there, all of them are agreed on the essential unity of South Arabia; and I have seen no evidence to show that there is any political support inside South Arabia for the separation of Aden State from the rest of the country.

Mr. Evelyn King

Would the right hon. Gentleman answer two practical questions? First, as he has twice referred to the evacuation of military families, is it not a fact that one of these disturbances took place at the Federal headquarters, where there are British civilian servants who also have families? What is being done for their families?

Secondly, as I understood the right hon. Gentleman to say that the British casualties occurred in a company of British infantry, is he satisfied that there are sufficient armoured vehicles available —vehicles which, I should have thought, were more suitable in the circumstances?

Mr. Thomson

We are wholly satisfied about the adequacy of both the numbers and equipment of our forces to deal with the problems there. All the civilian families in South Arabia have precautions taken for their safety. I am happy to say that the expatriate families at Al Ittihad, the Federal capital, suffered no molestation during the two hours of the trouble. However, we will, as a result of these events, be surveying what precautionary arrangements there are for civilian families.

Mr. Winnick

I am sure that my right hon. Friend is aware of the horror which is felt at the tragic events in Aden. Is he aware that many people appear to feel that, from now on, there is bound to be more bloodshed and more chaos, perhaps leading to another Congo or Vietnam, unless there is a radical change of policy in our whole attitude towards Aden and the South Arabian Federation?

Mr. Thomson

The main motive of the policy announced by my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary on Monday was precisely to avoid in South Arabia any danger of Britain being discredited by association with another Congo. It is important to see my right hon. Friend's statement in that perspective.

Sir J. Eden

May I press the right hon. Gentleman to answer a question on the subject of arms? Is it not astonishing that, in such a highly volatile situation, arms and ammunition seem to be so readily obtainable? Will the Government no longer concern themselves with constitutions or future development, but grapple with the problem of restoring law and order as rapidly and expeditiously as possible?

Mr. Thomson

No, Sir. I think that the hon. Gentleman is wong and that my hon. Friends who have been questioning me about this are right. While it is a basic essential to maintain law and order, it is equally important to go ahead with the task of political reconciliation, because it is only in that way that an independent South Arabia will have a good chance of prosperous survival.

Mr. Francis Noel-Baker

Is there not already evidence to show that the lamentable events which occurred yesterday and the repercussions from the mutiny are directly connected with the repressive policy announced on Monday—to support, by force of British arms, an unrepresentative regime, thereby destroying the hope of United Nations' help? Will my right hon. Friend press the Government to change their policy, even at this last moment?

Mr. Thomson

No, Sir. My hon. Friend is utterly wrong in trying to link the melancholy events of yesterday with the statement made by my right hon. Friend on Monday. As I sought to explain carefully in my main statement, the internal troubles in the Federal forces let to these difficulties yesterday, had their origin about 10 days ago and had been simmering for some time. There is no evidence to show that these events were politically motivated by, or in any way linked with, my right hon. Friend's statement.

Mr. Stratton Mills

When looking at the question of speeding up the return of British families, would the right hon. Gentleman consider giving special priority to those families living in the Malla area, known as "Murder Mile", in view of the fact that this area is virtually undefendable and is most unsatisfactory for Service families?

Mr. Thomson

That is being done, and we are very much aware of the need to give special consideration to families living in exposed conditions, such as places like Malla.

Mr. Luard

My right hon. Friend has provided a convincing explanation for the first incident—on the basis of personal and tribal rivalries within the Federal Army. Would not he agree that the second and third—the far more serious incidents—give very much more the appearance of an organised revolt by Adeni police against British troops and, perhaps, against Federal troops? What will Her Majesty's Government do to meet this situation if this should prove to have been the case?

Mr. Thomson

The first task is to restore law and order in Crater. We are still in the middle of a serious situation there, and this is one matter which inhibits me from saying some of the things today that I might otherwise have said.

I said, when answering a question earlier, that while this began with internal problems—non-political problems—in the Federal forces, when the disturbances took place in Crater, they obviously got very much mixed up with the political groups in Crater; and it is true to say that the disturbing feature of those disturbances is the fact that the police force in the Crater area was itself actively involved in these disturbances. This is a more serious matter, but the first thing is to get law and order restored there.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. This is difficult but we must move on.