HC Deb 25 November 1974 vol 882 cc46-54
The Minister of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. David Ennals)

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I will make a statement on the hijacking of a British Airways VC10.

As my right honourable Friend the Secretary of State for Trade told the House on 22nd November, a British Airways VC10 en route from London to Brunei was attacked the previous evening 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. The aircraft was refuelled and flew first to Tripoli and then to Tunis, where it landed at 11.06 GMT on Friday.

That afternoon the hijackers demanded the release of 13 Palestinian prisoners, detained in Cairo, who had been responsible for the murder of two American diplomats and the Belgian Chargé d'Affaires in Khartoum and for the massacre at Rome Airport in December last year. If these demands were not met, the terrorists threatened to kill the passengers one by one. Tragically, the terrorists shot one passenger, Mr. Kehl, and I should like to express my sympathy to his family and the Government of the Federal Republic of Germany.

Later in the course of Saturday the hijackers appeared to accept an arrangement whereby the five Palestinians concerned in the Rome Airport incident and the two Palestinians sentenced in the Netherlands for hijacking the British VC10 in March would be handed over to them. As negotiations between the Tunisian Government and the hijackers continued, passengers were released in groups, and by 1.45 p.m. yesterday all the passengers were off the aircraft and the prisoners were on board with the hijackers and crew. It was understood at that point that the aircraft would take off for an unknown destination, but it later appeared that no other country would take them.

The hijackers then set a series of new deadlines, demanding their release and immunity from prosecution in Tunisia. Otherwise they threatened to blow up the aircraft with the crew and themselves on board. At 08.33 this morning we learned that everybody had left the aircraft. The crew are safe, unharmed, exhausted but in good spirits and are expected to return to London this evening together with some of the passengers.

I was almost continuously in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office throughout the period of these harrowing events and my hon. Friend the Undersecretary of State for Trade was frequently with me. We were in close touch with the Prime Minister and the Secretaries of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and for Trade. We worked closely with British Airways both in London and in Tunis, where Mr. Ross Stainton, Chief Executive of its Overseas Division, headed a British Airways team. On Friday I dispatched Mr. James Craig, Head of the Near East and North African Department of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, to Tunis to take charge of the British interests in the negotiations. That evening the Prime Minister sent a message to President Bourguiba expressing his concern for the safety of the passengers and the crew.

Her Majesty's Government deeply deplore and strongly condemn this latest terrorist incident but are heartened by the wide condemnation which it received, especially in the Arab world. I greatly regret that the incident did not pass off without the death of one passenger and the wounding of two other people. It is nevertheless a great relief that all the other passengers and the crew have been safely released. I should like to pay tribute to the bravery and fortitude of Captain Futcher and his crew, who showed exemplary calm and dignity throughout their long ordeal.

Mr. Higgins

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the House will be grateful to him for making his statement? Is he further aware that we would wish to join him in his tribute to the courage of the staff of British Airways and his expressions of sympathy to the relatives of the dead passenger and those injured? The House will share his relief at the release of the other hostages. None the less, society is now under attack from terrorists on a number of fronts, and hon. Members have indicated the need to consider the problem of terrorism as a whole.

May I ask the Minister three specific questions? First, will he clarify the position on the release of the terrorists? Do I understand that eight remain in Cairo, that five have been transferred from Cairo and have been released in Tunis, that the two originally held by the Dutch Government have also been freed, but that the four who boarded the aircraft in Dubai are still being detained by the Tunisian authorities? Have Her Majesty's Government made any representations to the Tunisian authorities to prevent any of these criminals from continuing their terrorist activities?

Secondly, since the arrangements made for tightening security at the Gulf airports after the incidents in 1970 do not appear to have operated effectively on this occasion, may we have an assurance that a full investigation will take place and that a report will be made to the House?

Finally, since there appears to be no international support for this latest attack, will Her Majesty's Government press all those countries which have not yet signed or ratified the Montreal Convention to do so immediately?

Mr. Ennals

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. I am sure that the whole House shares his admiration for the way in which the British Airways crew and those who went out to support them behaved.

I cannot confirm the present situation in Tunisia or the situation in relation to the four hijackers and the seven prisoners who were released. Certain reports have been put out by Reuter, but I have not yet had confirmation of them from Tunisia. I sympathise with the thought that lies behind the hon. Gentleman's question as to the future of these men. We are now considering what action it would be possible and reasonable to take.

On the question of security, there was certainly no breach in the airline security precautions at Dubai. We have to recognose that the hijackers were not passengers. They attacked the aircraft after they had broken into the airport. It is true that this raises some serious questions which have to be faced, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade has called for an immediate review of the security precautions on British airlines, particularly at overseas airports, so as to consider whether, and, if so, what, further measures may be required.

In answer to the hon. Gentleman's third question, I assure him that we shall be giving encouragement to other countries to sign the Montreal Convention.

Mr. John Mendelson

Whilst I support everything my right hon. Friend has said, both in expressing deep regret at the loss of human life in this tragedy and in honouring the conduct of the crew and those who worked with them, may I remind him that the tragedy emphasises the woeful irresponsibility of the main Powers concerned with international airlines in not having reached agreement as requested on so many occasions by the International Federation of Air Line Pilots Associations?

May I also remind my right hon. Friend that from what one knows from private discussions, from the conference in Rome and from other occasions, the problem has never yet been faced with the seriousness with which the people who are in danger face it? Will he insist on the Powers being called together immediately to start afresh the attempt to reach agreement so that tragedies of this kind are met with effective measures by all the Powers most directly concerned?

Mr. Ennals

We are, of course, in touch with the British Air Line Pilots Association and have kept it fully informed of the events. We shall be seeking and taking the association's advice very seriously in the course of the review which my right hon. Friend is carrying out.

On the broader issues, I agree with my hon. Friend that it is deplorable and greatly to be regretted that so many countries have refused to sign international agreements and to accept the responsibilities which are properly theirs. It is certainly not through want of trying by Her Majesty's Government. We and previous Governments have been in the lead in this matter. We recently persuaded the Europe Civil Aviation Conference to institute a study of security precautions within Europe, and the first meeting is to be held shortly. However, that does not cover the sort of problems in the Middle East that we have been dealing with today.

Mr. David Steel

Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that a worse tragedy was averted precisely because the international community acted effectively and collectively? Will he extend that cooperation to the question of security at international airports, which is still lax? Will he continue his diplomatic negotiations, making clear from the British Government's point of view that public opinion in this country would be horrified if those responsible for the cold-blooded murder of the German passenger were allowed to go scot-free?

Mr. Ennals

I share the view that lies behind the second part of the hon. Gentleman's question. There is a strong feeling in this country that it would be wrong. But these are matters that finally have to be decided by other Governments. Whereas we may be able to bring pressure to bear, the decisions do not lie in our hands alone.

I accept what the hon. Gentleman said at the beginning of his question. One of the most encouraging features of a very disturbing situation is that almost every relevant country in the world condemned it. None of the Middle East countries was prepared to give sanctuary to the hijackers, and that has not happened in any previous hijacking event. We should give credit for that to the Governments concerned, which, for once, stood solidly together. That has not happened before.

Mrs. Millie Miller

My hon. Friend has made two important announcements, one about the conduct of the crew and one about the solidarity of what he called the "relevant" nations. Does he accept that condemnation is not enough in these circumstances, and that it is essential that Britain should put pressure on those Governments to ensure that the people who have been freed, who have been condemned for foul crimes against humanity, are not allowed to go free, any more than the person who murdered the German passenger should be allowed to go free?

Mr. Ennals

As I said in answer to an earlier question, I greatly respect the views expressed by my hon. Friend. The event is very recent and the situation is still not clear. The Government are urgently considering in what way we can bring to bear appropriate representations in view of what she and Opposition Members have said.

Mr. Mather

Will the hon. Gentleman take international action to ensure that there are really effective penalties for terrorists? Imprisonment is not the answer, because it makes Governments extremely vulnerable. Will the hon. Gentleman ensure that talks are held to ensure that effective penalties are introduced for crimes of terrorism?

Mr. Ennals

That follows on from a previous question. The Government have signed and ratified the Hague Hijacking Convention of 1970 and the Montreal Convention of 1971, on other acts of violence against civil aviation. The Hague Convention calls on contracting States to establish jurisdiction over a hijacker and requires the immediate apprehension of the offender. The action to be taken by a contracting State under the Montreal Convention is similar. Our anxiety is that, as we have done, every country in the world should stand by and ratify the convention.

Mr. George Cunningham

Does the Minister of State agree that, although we are all glad that all but one of the passengers escaped with their lives, the significant thing is that the hijackers got what they wanted by butchering in cold blood the German passenger, to whose country and relatives we should extend our sympathy?

Should we not consider the possibility, along with other countries, of setting up as an international community, an international court which would try such offences, rather than allowing that to be done by separate national judiciaries, so that there may be completely united action against this international threat?

Mr. Ennals

In answer to the second part of the question, we shall be taking very seriously a number of proposals that have been made both in the House and outside as to the lessons that should be learnt from this tragic event. But we cannot yet say what decisions have been or will be taken by the Tunisian Government. Until that is known we cannot assume the point made by my hon. Friend at the beginning of his question.

Mr. Warren

Will the right hon. Gentleman consider the need for Her Majestiy's Government to exercise an initiative by bringing together the three international professional organisations which are directly involved in the problem of hijacking, namely, the International Air Transport Association, the International Civil Aviation Organisation, and the International Federation of Air Line Pilots Associations? There is a need for a new look at this whole problem of terrorism, which has not been controlled by existing conventions.

Mr. Ennals

That is a further suggestion which will be considered, especially by my right hon. Friend who has responsibility in that field.

Mr. Rippon

May I join in the expressions of appreciation to the Minister for his statement, and in the expressions of gratitude to the crew and others who have had to deal with this difficult incident?

May I press the Minister on two points? First, will there be a formal inquiry into the security arrangements at Dubai and elsewhere, and a report to the House? Will he bear in mind that we cannot be entirely satisfied by a statement that there will be further consideration of all the points that have been raised?

Secondly, will the Minister undertake to tell the House whether the Government have in mind any new international initiatives? If he cannot do that today, will he undertake to do so as soon as possible? Many right hon. and hon. Members feel, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings (Mr. Warren) said, that something more is required than a general desire that more people should ratify and act under The Hague and Montreal Conventions.

Mr. Ennals

There are two points I should like to make in answer to the right hon. and learned Member for Hexham (Mr. Rippon). As I said earlier, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade has called for an immediate review. I cannot at the moment say in what form the conclusions of that review will be published to the House, but I will draw to my right hon. Friend's attention—in fact he is present on the Government Front Bench with me—the anxiety of the House that such conclusions as are reached should be presented to the House. Since there is general concern about the situation both abroad and in this country, the Government believe that armed personnel should be deployed at airports to combat incidents of this kind in the light of the current threat. I assure the House that so far as the major airports of this country are concerned armed personnel are deployed. On the subject of international consultation, I can also assure the House that we shall seek an opportunity of making a further statement to the House.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

I am sorry, but I must protect the Opposition Supply Day. We are already an hour late, and I have been informed that over 40 right hon. and hon. Members wish to take part in the debate on agriculture.