HC Deb 22 May 1978 vol 950 cc1113-21
The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Edward Rowlands)

I will, with permission, Mr. Speaker, make a statement on British citizens in Zaire.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs informed the House on 16th May about the situation of British citizens in Zaire.

I now have to tell the House with very deep regret that five British subjects must now be presumed to have been killed in the appalling atrocities which have taken place in Kolwezi in the past few days. An RAF officer, who was sent there yesterday as soon as the first information about British loss of life was received, has reported that he has firmly established the deaths of three of those concerned. We shall make every effort to confirm the position over the remaining two reported British victims as quickly as possible.

The remaining 19 United Kingdom citizens who were known to have been in Kolwezi are now safely accounted for. Some have already been evacuated to Europe and others are still in Zaire. The British Embassy at Kinshasa is doing everything it can to help. It has not, in the event, been necessary to use two British Army medical teams which were sent.

I am sure that the House will join with me in expressing deep sympathy to the families of those who have been so wantonly killed in these tragic events, as well as to all those of every nationality who have suffered in this terrible ordeal.

Mr. John Davies

First, may I associate the Opposition with the expression of sympathy and regret which the Minister of State has uttered? We all feel simply horrified at the spectacle of what has happened in the past few days. May I now put three questions?

Can the Minister assure the House that every step is taken not only to look after the remaining British citizens in Shaba and the area concerned but to look after those who may be in the path of the retreating guerrillas as they go to their countries whence they came, perhaps through Zambia and into Angola, in order to protect British lives in that area?

Secondly, can the Minister give the House some reassurance about the position of the European Community and other European powers in this matter? Does he recognise that the great history of European relationships with Africa and the current position wherein so many European people are employed in that continent are a cause for particular concern among European Powers? What steps is the Minister taking to try to ensure that there is some permanent and positive European co-operation with a view to insuring against the development of these fearful emergencies and to an effort to create some stability in Africa?

Thirdly, there can at this stage, I know, be only a presumption that Cubans, East Germans or Soviet forces or others are involved in this set of atrocities, but is it not more and more clear that the presence of these people in Africa constitutes a permanent threat to peace? Is it not time now to raise the matter with the Security Council, pointing out that the failure to withdraw these forces, still in Africa now after years and simply set upon destroying the future of Africa, cannot be allowed to continue?

Mr. Rowlands

I can certainly give the right hon. Gentleman the first assurance for which he asks. We are in close touch with the Zambian authorities about the possibility of British citizens, including children, being involved in the path of the retreating forces. As for the question of European co-operation, I think that there has never been closer co-operation within Europe on African matters, at all levels. Last weekend we had the meeting of EEC Foreign Ministers which discussed in considerable detail all aspects relating to Africa.

I understand and appreciate the third point which the right hon. Gentleman makes, and in a recent speech my right hon. Friend raised the whole issue of Cuban and Soviet involvement. We have said previously, and we have repeated, that if we can gain the support of others, the matter can be taken to the Security Council, but we require such collective support to bring the matter to the Security Council effectively.

Mr. David Steel

I associate my right hon. Friend and hon. Friends and myself with the expressions of sympathy to the relatives of those who were killed in this tragic incident. May I press the Minister a little further on the first question raised by the right hon. Member for Knutsford (Mr. Davies), with reference to the missionaries and farmers, British citizens, in the north-west corner of Zambia? Is their safety assured should the rebel forces be crossing back through that region? Secondly, although I do not wish to go into the deep roots of this particular conflagration, since there seems to be no doubt that it started from Angola, will there at least be some protest by the British Government to the Government of Angola?

Thirdly, will the Minister, with his colleagues in Belgium and France, be reviewing the nature of this operation, since it appears that the lack of a news blackout gave forewarning of the operation, with tragic consequences?

Mr. Rowlands

On the first point, obviously, one cannot give an absolute assurance, but I assure the right hon. Gentleman that there are close consultations going on between our High Commission in Lusaka and the Zambian authorities on the possibilities which he has raised. On the second issue, I think that the Angolan Government are under no illusion about where we stand and where our partners stand on the role and function of the Cubans in Angola in this or any other episode outside their country.

As for reviewing the nature of the operation, it was in many respects an example of close co-operation among European partners, but, obviously, one learns from any particular incident or event.

Mr. Whitehead

Although, obviously, it is too early to go into the sequence of these tragic events, has my hon. Friend the Minister seen the reports in today's Press that at least some of the killings seem to have been carried out before the insurrectionary group started on the widespread massacre and pillage which took place in Kolwezi? Will my hon. Friend make a protest to President Mobutu's Government to make absolutely clear that we hold that Government and all others on the African continent responsible for the safety of expatriates who are in their territory?

Mr. Rowlands

The safety of any people working or living within a Government's boundaries is the responsibility of the Government concerned. I cannot confirm the reports to which my hon. Friend refers, although we are in touch with Kinshasha about this now.

Mr. John Page

Will the hon. Gentleman refer more directly to the question he was asked by the leader of the Liberal Party and consider whether a direct reproof to Angola should be given for its part in this incident, particularly remembering the position on the Angola border in connection with SWAPO and the Namibia affair, all of which is interknit?

Mr. Rowlands

The Angolan Government can be in no doubt about our position in respect of activities carried on outside Angola by Cuban forces based in Angola. But we have no evidence of the direct participation of Cuban forces in the Shaba province.

Mr. Newens

Whilst I utterly deplore the appalling atrocities, may I ask my hon. Friend to investigate the reports now being circulated that the killings were apparently begun by soldiers of General Mobutu's Government army? In these circumstances, would it not be totally premature to attempt to pin every atrocity that takes place on the Africa continent on the presence of Cuban troops in Angola, bearing in mind that many other people have also had troops in Africa over the years, troops who have been responsible, particularly in the Congo, for many other atrocities long before the Cubans arrived?

Mr. Rowlands

We have no confirmation of the report to which my hon. Friend refers. But what is not premature is to say that considerable massacre and acts of brutality were committed by the rebels in Shaba on the European and expatriate population in Kolwezi.

Mr. Rifkind

Do the Government yet have any information whether the objective of the rebel forces is to seek the secession of the Shaba province from the rest of Zaire or whether the intention is to try to topple the Zairian Government as a whole?

Mr. Rowlands

I do not think that it is possible on the basis of any evidence that we have to say what the particular objectives were, except the disruption and destruction of not only people but economic facilities and the economic infrastructure of the area concerned.

Mr. Grocott

Has my hon. Friend sought assurances from the French that their operation is restricted simply to securing the safety of citizens in Zaire and that there is no question of their involving themselves in any possible civil war in Zaire? Does my hon. Friend agree that we cannot possibly object to the troops of just one country involving themselves in Africa, and that our objection should be to any country—from East or West, Cuba, France or any other—involving itself in the internal affairs of Africa?

Mr. Rowlands

We do not have to seek assurances from the French Government. They have made a statement, with the Belgian Government, that their sole objective has been to help the evacuation of expatriates from the area concerned. Any sovereign Government are perfectly entitled to invite the support of someone from outside to assist them with any problems.

Mr. Blaker

If there has been Cuban involvement, at least in the preparation of the invasion, is not this incident another demonstration of the importance of the Western countries, including the United States and Britain, giving a demonstration to those countries in Africa which are well disposed towards us that we have some will to look after their and our interests?

Mr. Rowlands

I do not think that there is any question about that or about good will in all the discussions that we have, bilaterally and multilaterally, with African countries or Africa in general. We convey our support for a strong Organisation of African Unity, the principle of territorial integrity of African States, and acceptance that, as in Shaba, one cannot and must not try to change the situation by force, the consequences of which we have seen only too clearly in the past two weeks.

Mr. Evelyn King

Is it not a fact that the invasion troops came from Angola, and as Angola is Cuban-dominated, will the Minister state unequivocally that this incident could not have happened without Cuban connivance? Will the hon. Gentleman make that perfectly clear?

Secondly, is it not a fact that we approach the situation that at least among the smaller independent African States there is constant danger from Cuban forces? Will the Foreign and Commonwealth Office take that on board and realise that independence among the smaller African States is now everywhere at risk?

Mr. Rowlands

As to the hon. Gentleman's first point, all that I have been able to say is that we cannot confirm or prove that there has been any direct Cuban involvement in Shaba. That does not mean that there was not Cuban involvement in the military training, advice or assistance given to any group in Angola that went into Shaba. That is quite clear.

Mr. Alan Clark

Is not there considerable evidence that the private recrimination, mutual jealousies and general incompetence of the French and the Belgians in this case show that snap reactions by the Community are singularly ineffective? Leisurely consultations are all very well, but does not the Minister agree that in a crisis British subjects are likely to be save only by British Service men?

Mr. Rowlands

But for the intervention there could have been a much larger death toll of expatriates in the Kolwezi area. The action taken was designed to prevent the tragedies that had already occurred in that town to expatriate citizens—Belgian, French, British or any other.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

I shall call those hon. Members who have been rising to ask questions.

Mr. Hooson

Will the hon. Gentleman direct his mind to the third point put to him by my right hon. Friend the Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles (Mr. Steel): did not the absence of a news blackout make it much more difficult for the troops going in? Does not the evidence suggest that it materially affected the attitude of the insurgents, because they heard over the radio that paratroopers were coming in, and that affected their attitude towards the white population?

Mr. Rowlands

Clearly, before this incident, large numbers of people had already been attacked and killed in one way or another. Everybody realises the extreme difficulty in a modern society of the movement of people or the planning of such movements in total secrecy.

Mr. Biggs-Davison

Will the European discussions which the Minister mentioned be directed towards removing the delays and rivalries which appear to have affected the Kolwezi operation? As for Cuban and therefore Soviet involvement, when the Foreign Office has some information to give us, may we please be given it?

Mr. Rowlands

When we get any detailed or concrete information, it can of course be provided through the normal ways and means of obtaining information from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and from Ministers.

I think that I have answered the hon. Gentleman's first point three or four times. There was very close co-operation in the operation. Although one may learn from the experience, I think that it has succeeded in saving many people who would otherwise have been killed.

Mr. Fairbairn

Does the Minister appreciate that had matters been in reverse and the same number of black people rather than white people had been killed, we should have had massive protests from our Government, the United Nations, the Organisation of African Unity, Amnesty International and so on? May we have an indication that the Government regard the action as purely racist? Secondly, will the hon. Gentleman tell us to what extent British aid to Angola may have assisted? Thirdly, to what extent does he take the view that the invasion, whether or not it was successful, has successfully abolished the European presence which is essential to Zaire's economy?

Mr. Rowlands

Black and white have been killed in the atrocities of the past few days. There is no racist aspect to this. The brutalities of the invading group and the tragedies it caused are now, sadly, well known.

As to the hon. and learned Gentleman's other points, I think that he is off the beam. What we have been trying to do in conjunction with our European partners is to conduct successfully the evacuation of a significant group of expatriates who were working in the Shaba province. The hon. and learned Gentleman may be right—only time will tell—whether the effect on the economy of that province, which depended considerably on the presence of these people, with their technical expertise, will permanently damage the Zaire economy. These are matters that will have to be dealt in the months ahead.

Mr. Brotherton

Will the Minister tell us how many more such incidents there will have to be before the Government tell the Governments of such countries as Zambia, Angola and Mozambique that as long as those countries continue to harbour those who commit murder on the continent of Africa we shall not give them any more aid? Secondly, would the Minister of State not agree that this tragedy shows how it is now more than ever necessary for the Government to do all in their power to promote the internal settlement in Rhodesia?

Mr. Rowlands

The House should resent most bitterly the bracketing of the countries the hon. Gentleman has mentioned. The hon. Member has associated the Zambian Government with these issues when we know from the conversations that the Prime Minister had last week with President Kaunda that the Zambian authorities have done their utmost to help deal with the terrible problems and consequences of this incident.

Mr. Faulds

Since these tragic and ghastly incidents are likely to recur in other parts of Africa, largely because of the ex-colonial legacy, may I ask my hon. Friend to assure the House that if such incidents occur in a British ex-colonial territory, British forces will be sent with as much dispatch and determination as the French forces were sent to Kolwezi.

Mr. Rowlands

That is a hypothetical question. It is the responsibility of every Government to try to ensure the safety of their citizens at home and abroad.