HC Deb 29 October 1975 vol 898 cc1594-6
Mr. Goodhart (by Private Notice)

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs whether he will make a statement about the position of British citizens in the Lebanon.

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. James Callaghan)

There are about 3,000 United Kingdom nationals remaining in the Lebanon. The ambassador has today reported that, as far as is known, all United Kingdom nationals are safe and well and there have been no reports of any being injured in the recent heavy fighting. He has advised all United Kingdom nationals whose presence is not required in the country to leave while normal air services are operating. The ambassador is ready to give further advice to the British community should he consider this necessary.

Mr. Goodhart

As the road between the city of Beirut and the airport is particularly vulnerable, will the Foreign Secretary say whether there are any contingency plans to evacuate by sea the victims of violence, if necessary?

As there seems also to be a grave shortage of medical supplies in Beirut, will the Foreign Secretary say whether we have made any offers of medical assistance to the Lebanese Government? Further, as Beirut has for many years been one of the most pleasant and, indeed, tolerant cities in the Middle East, is it right that the Western community should seem to stand completely aside while Beirut is blown to bits?

Mr. Callaghan

As regards the first part of the hon. Gentleman's question, at the moment British Airways and most other airlines are operating normally through Beirut during daylight hours, so that there has been no difficulty over transport for persons wishing to leave. We are in close touch with British Airways, and we would make alternative plans to evacuate United Kingdom nationals if it became necessary.

The hon. Gentleman next asked about medical supplies. The Minister of State informs me that this is a matter being considered at the moment, and we shall give such information as we can as soon as a decision is taken.

As for the third part of the hon. Gentleman's question, this is a matter to which I give daily attention. I am in touch with other Governments about it—those in the Middle East, those in Europe, and the United States Government. I shall be discussing the matter further with my colleagues in the Community on Thursday. But so far we have not seen any action which could usefully be taken. If there were any, we should take it.

Mr. David Watkins

Can my right hon. Friend say whether, in the current tragic situation in Beirut, access to and egress from the British embassy there is in any way impaired? Are channels of communication between our embassy and the Lebanese Government fully operative?

Mr. Callaghan

Our embassy is in no greater danger than anywhere else in Beirut at present. I have sent a message to the ambassador and his staff, with which I am sure the House will agree, congratulating them on the way in which they are carrying out their duties under very great stress at the moment.

As regards the second part of my hon. Friend's question, our ambassador hopes to see Mr. Karami, the Prime Minister, today. Normal channels of communication are open. But, as my hon. Friend wil realise, the Lebanese Prime Minister is under very heavy pressure at the moment.

Mr. Maudling

This is a grave and tragic situation not only by reason of the suffering of the people of a country which is lovely and should be happy but also because of the real threat to the stability of the Middle East. The Opposition support the right hon. Gentleman's congratulations to the embassy staff, and we assure him that, if there is anything which he can do to help in the situation, he will have our full support.

Mr. Callaghan

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman on both counts. It is not lack of enterprise or will in terms of whether we should intervene; it is a matter of knowing whether we would improve the situation by so doing. The combined views of those of us who have been discussing these matters by telegram, telephone and in conversation is that at the moment we do not see any prospect of doing so. I am glad that, if the Government decide that some intervention can play a useful part, we shall have the right hon. Gentleman's support.

Mr. Faulds

Although foreigners are in danger because of the fighting in Lebanon, does my right hon. Friend not agree that so far there has been no molestation of British or foreign nationals? I endorse my right hon. Friend's comments about the embassy staff in Beirut. British interests could not be better represented than they are.

Mr. Callaghan

Certainly there has been no molestation of British nationals, and I am not aware of any molestation of the nationals of any other country. As the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mr. Maudling) said, this is a tragic situation in which the country seems to be collapsing. I know that Mr. Karami, the Prime Minister, has hopes about the prospects of a cease-fire, and perhaps today or tomorrow will bring better news. We can only hope so for the sake of that very unhappy country.