HC Deb 22 November 1974 vol 881 cc1681-6
The Secretary of State for Trade and President of the Board of Trade (Mr. Peter Shore)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I shall make a statement on the hijacking at Dubai.

Late last night a British Airways VC10 en route from London to Brunei via Beirut, Dubai, Calcutta and Singapore was attacked by armed terrorists on the ground at Dubai Airport. The terrorists forced their way on to the aircraft, wounding a British Airways stewardess and an airport worker who were near the aircraft.

The terrorists threatened to destroy the aircraft and kill the passengers, and demanded that the aircraft should be refuelled. With the agreement of the Dubai authorities and of British Airways, the aircraft was refuelled and was subsequently permitted to take off from Dubai at 23.49 hours GMT. The aircraft flew direct to Tripoli, where it landed at 06.23 hours GMT this morning. The plane was refuelled at Tripoli and took off at 0933 hours GMT for an unknown destination. I may add that I have just been informed that it landed in Tunis some 20 minutes ago.

I understand that there are 27 passengers, 10 crew and eight Dubai Airport staff on board the aircraft, as well as the hijackers. There has been close liaison throughout the incident between British Airways and officials of my Department and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and I have been kept in close touch with the situation. I will, of course, inform the House of further developments.

Mr. Higgins

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the House will be grateful for this up-to-date statement? Further, is he aware that the House will wish to deplore this further act of terrorism against innocent people and to express sympathy for those injured, for others involved and for those who are anxious about those who may be involved? There have been reports that some passengers left the aircraft before it took off at Dubai. Will the right hon. Gentleman say whether the names of the passengers and the crew members are now available? If they are not available, will he ensure that they are made available as soon as possible? Finally, may I express my thanks to the right hon. Gentleman for his assurance that he will keep the House informed of further developments?

Mr. Shore

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his remarks. I know that the whole House will deplore yet another incident of this kind. I know that the House will feel anxiety, as will many people throughout the country who have friends or relatives who may be involved in this incident, until we have further and final news of the outcome of the whole affair. I regret to say that I have not yet been able to get a list of the names of those who are now aboard the aircraft. I have only the numbers, but we are making urgent inquiries. I hope to receive further information before the day is out.

Mr. Hooson

Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that the stewardess who has been wounded is not badly wounded? Has any clue been given as to the identity of these terrorists, and have any demands been made by radio or otherwise of the British Government or any other organisation?

Mr. Shore

I am informed that the stewardess who was wounded was shot in the back. I am glad to say that on present information it does not appear to be a very severe wound. We all hope she will recover. The hon. and learned Gentleman asked me about the identity of the organisation concerned. A message came out of Beirut this morning from a group called the Group of the Martyrs of Al Ghalfour about which virtually nothing is known so far. It has claimed responsibility for the attack. It has made plain that it intends to make its demands known at a later stage, but so far no demand has been presented by the hijackers either in Dubai or in Tripoli.

I take this opportunity of updating the reply that I gave to the hon. Member for Worthing (Mr. Higgins). We have now a list of names of those on board but we do not yet know their nationalities.

Mr. Raymond Fletcher

Does my right bon. Friend agree that this latest incident is further evidence that the terrorists who perpetrated it are of the same breed, think the same thoughts and have the same strategic aim as those who were responsible for the terrorism in Birmingham? Is he aware that we are confronted with an assault on the whole of Western civilisation? Will he approach other European countries with a view to taking action on this assumption?

Mr. Shore

I believe that all Governments who share common values and wish to retain them within their own societies have a clear and imperative requirement to co-operate to the full to baffle, defeat and overcome this growth of terrorism. It is clearly not confined to one part of the world or to one group of people but is spreading all too rapidly and all too far throughout the Western world.

Mr. Heath

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that since the hijacking episodes of rather more than four years ago, in the autumn of 1970, British aircraft have been singularly free from terrorist activities? After the episodes of 1970 detailed investigations were carried out and the strictest possible orders were given to the airlines as well as to airports where we had staff about the action taken to prevent terrorism.

Dubai has always been recognised as one of the most dangerous places for an outbreak of terrorism. Will the right hon. Gentleman ensure that a full inquiry is made into this incident to see whether the procedures are being strictly carried out and that there has not been any lapse because of the passage of time? Further, will he ensure that the techniques which have since been developed in other countries and by other Governments can be used wherever the aircraft finally lands to ensure that these terrorists are not successful in their objectives?

We know from recent episodes in other countries—particularly Holland—that terrorists can be dealt with successfully. It is, therefore, the Government's responsibility to do everything possible to ensure that the passengers and the aircraft are saved and that the terrorists are not successful.

Mr. Shore

I assure that the right hon. Gentleman that all possible security measures are taken and, furthermore, that there is a continuing study and updating of the techniques for dealing with possible incidents like this. I acknowledge that we have been, in some ways, remarkably free from the kind of outrages that many other airlines and countries have suffered from in recent years.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about the precautions at Dubai. I assure him that we shall make close inquiries into the situation there. I am informed that British Airways has resident security officers there, and I am sure that this has been an addition to the defence arrangements made by the Dubai authorities themselves.

Mr. Emery

Will the right hon. Gentleman make clear to the airline staff the views of this House about their bravery and their long endurance of the danger of this kind of attack? Are airline staff happy that everything possible is being done for the protection of the aircraft? Having flown abroad a certain amount during the last five weeks, I have been surprised to note how obvious are the armed guards on aircraft belonging to other airlines, although whether this is a deterrent to terrorists I do not know. But I should like to be certain that British aircrews are happy that everything is being done for the protection of the aircraft they fly.

Mr. Shore

I assure the hon. Gentleman that everything is being done. If there are further things we can do to improve security, we shall be willing and anxious to do them, and will, of course, take account of any representations and suggestions that the airline staff make, I certainly echo the hon. Gentleman's comments—as the whole House does—in paying tribute to the endurance and courage of our aircrews.

Mr. Faulds

Will my right hon. Friend accept that many of us, as I do, who support the Palestinian case—one presumes that this incident has some connection with Palestine—deplore, as most of the official representatives of the majority of the Palestinian organisations do, crimes of this nature? We find them just as unacceptable in Dubai or anywhere else as we do crimes of a similar nature in Birmingham.

Mr. Shore

I am glad to have that forthright statement from my hon. Friend, and I hope that it will be noted.

Mr. Tebbit

Will the right hon. Gentleman ask British Airways to convey the House's understanding of and sympathy for both the crew members on board the aircraft and their families, who are now going through such anxious times? In the event of BALPA or the Guild of Air Pilots and Navigators seeking further talks with the right hon. Gentlemen about security measures and retaliation against hijackers in any way, will he receive them?

I should like to emphasise the point made by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition about combating hijackers, and add to it the point that, according to the tapes, the Palestine Liberation Organisation has itself condemned this hijacking. If that is so, the right hon. Gentleman should seek to make what ground he can, even with the Palestine Liberation Organisation, and should, above all, not give in to an even more extremist organisation, which would cut away the ground from under the moderates, if moderates there be, in the PLO?

Mr. Shore

I have not yet had the opportunity to study the further statement which may have been made. We welcome the fact that the PLO has condemned the outrage. That is good.

We are, of course, in close touch with BALPA and other organisations whose members are directly involved in this sort of thing. If they wish to see me to discuss further security arrangements, I shall be very pleased to see them.

I acknowledge and echo on behalf of the House the feelings of concern and sympathy for the aircrew and their families

Mr. Biggs-Davison

Despite what my hon. Friend the Member for Chingford (Mr. Tebbit) has said from great knowledge, would not the Government agree that it would be intolerable for the PLO to be admitted in any way to the International Civil Aviation Organisation?

Mr. Shore

I think the hon. Gentleman is trying to take me far beyond the scope of my statement.