HC Deb 13 February 1979 vol 962 cc964-9

Mr. Ronald Bell (by private notice) asked the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs whether he will make a statement about the shooting down of a Viscount airliner near Kariba in Rhodesia yesterday evening.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Edward Rowlands)

Fifty-nine people were killed including, according to press reports, at least two United Kingdom citizens when a Rhodesian civilian airliner crashed near Kariba yesterday. According to the news agencies, the Patriotic Front claims to have been responsible. I am sure that the whole House will deplore this senseless attack, involving further tragic loss of innocent lives in Rhodesia. The escalation of the war reinforces our determination to continue our efforts to bring an end to the fighting by negotiations within a framework likely to prove acceptable to the people of Rhodesia as a whole. Until that happens, we fear that the drift into uncontrolled violence and chaos will continue.

Mr. Bell

Is that all that the Minister has to say about this tragic occurrence? Was this not most foul murder, unredeemed by any mitigation of sudden anger or instant provocation? Was it not just cold, barbarous, satanic butchery of 29 men, 26 women and four children? Has the Minister no word of condemnation for Nkomo, who claimed responsibility for the shooting down of an aircraft in September and who must be thought responsible for this one?

Was not this attack launched from Zambia? Is the Minister of State proposing to protest to President Kaunda about this murderous attack? Are these nests of pirates in Zambia still protected by British arms?

Mr. Rowlands

I do not think that the hon. and learned Gentleman can have even been listening to my reply. This attack has been deplored. It is deplorable. It was a senseless attack. It has no purpose or value in promoting freedom, justice or liberty in Rhodesia. I made that very clear.

As to the other aspects of the hon. and learned Gentleman's question, we have at present only news agency reports about the responsibility. The Patriotic Front claims responsibility for the attack. We know of no further details of what has happened, and we shall obviously await further news on the matter.

Mr. David Steel

Does the Minister of State have any information which confirms or denies the report that has appeared that this was an attempt on the life of General Walls? Irrespective of whether that was so, will he accept that we on the Liberal Bench regard the shooting down of a civilian aircraft as utterly to be deplored? Does he accept that the senseless loss of civilian life that is occurring daily in Rhodesia will go on until there is an acceptable settlement; that the elections to be held in April are really irrelevant to that; and that the search for a settlement will have to continue both before and after those elections?

Mr. Rowlands

Again, I cannot confirm or deny that the motive for the shooting down was to attack General Walls. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that as this was an attack on a civilian airliner, aboard which there were large numbers of innocent people, it is irrelevant to the nature of the action that has been taken.

I agree very much with the last part of what the right hon. Gentleman said. The elections in April will not really solve this problem. There is a war going on in Rhodesia. What is needed is a ceasefire and a negotiated solution.

Mr. Robert Hughes

Does my hon. Friend accept that daily in Rhodesia there is a mass killing of civilians? Does he further accept that the way in which Opposition Members show a callous lack of concern for anyone except people who are not black simply exacerbates the situation?

Is it not a fact that the declaration by the Opposition that they will support the internal settlement, irrespective of what happens, is simply making it quite certain that there can be no solution, because the black people of Rhodesia believe that they have been deserted by people in this House, when we ought to support them in their struggle for freedom, which is just and which ought to be won?

Mr. Rowlands

I agree with my hon. Friend. Atrocities have been committed by all sides in Rhodesia. The Rhodesian security forces have committed atrocities, which hon. Members—on both sides of the House, I hope—will condemn equally with this sort of barbaric act.

I agree with my hon. Friend in one other respect. I believe that the internal settlement cannot solve the problem of the growing violence within Rhodesia and that only a ceasefire and a negotiated settlement between all parties can achieve that.

Mr. Tebbit

First, would the Minister mind if I do what he forgot to do, and express the condolences of all people in this country to the relatives and friends of those who were murdered in this attack?

Secondly, does the Minister remember that after the previous outrage I wrote to the Prime Minister, and the Minister himself dealt with the question that I raised? That was to back a request from the British Air Line Pilots' Association that the British Government should help with technical aid and should help to try to get an international inquiry into that previous disaster. Does the Minister realise that by not giving that technical aid he may have denied the possibility of modifications either to the aircraft or to operating techniques which would have lessened the chance of another of these disasters?

Mr. Rowlands

The insinuations behind the last part of the hon. Gentleman's remarks were disgraceful and cheap. From our exhaustive correspondence, the hon. Member will know that we looked very hard at the matter and discussed in correspondence very seriously the issues that he raised. We have no effective means of mounting our own investigation into this tragedy, or, indeed, into the last occasion of an attack on a Rhodesian civilian airliner in September. [HON. MEMBERS: "Why not?"] The possibilities for productive investigations by the International Civil Aviation Organisation are limited. Neither the Rhodesians nor ZAPU are national authorities recognised by the ICAO.

Mr. Grocott

Will my hon. Friend confirm for the benefit of the Opposition, who do not seem to understand these matters, that there is a war going on in Rhodesia at present, in which innocent civilians are being killed every day, many of them being children, and many of them killed by Smith and his cronies? Will he confirm that he has had no representations from the Opposition on the murder, by Smith and his gang, of villagers, including those in the village of Nyamaropa recently?

Does my hon. Friend share my condemnation of an Opposition who seem to show selectivity between black and white, even in their attitudes to death?

Mr. Rowlands

I believe that there are a number of Opposition Members who show selectivity in their indignation, consternation and disgust about acts of barbarism or atrocities that have occurred in Rhodesia. However, I also believe that many hon. Members on both sides of the House condemn atrocities whenever and wherever they occur.

Mr. Gow

Does not the ill-informed statement that the Minister has made to the House underline the need for a high-powered British mission in Salisbury? If there were such a mission, would not the Minister be able to make a statement that was much more comprehensive than that which he made today?

Secondly, is it not clear that this attack on the civilian airliner was mounted from Zambia? What protest has been made by Her Majesty's Government to the Government of Zambia, and what representations are being made to the Patriotic Front in order to condemn this outrage?

Mr. Rowlands

I suspect that the hon. Gentleman must have information which even the Rhodesian regime has not been able to obtain fully as yet. Even the Rhodesian authorities have not yet formally and officially published their findings on the investigation into this crash. The hon. Gentleman's remarks are ill founded and ill conceived. Therefore, any speculation on the question of the territory from which this attack was mounted must await further investigations being conducted.

Mr. Pym

Apart from the horror of this incident, which I am sure all hon. Members will share, does not the Minister think it most unfortunate that such a provocative act as this should have taken place, quite probably with the intention of escalating the war, in circumstances in which the people of Rhodesia are trying to hold an election in April?

We on the Opposition Benches do not think that it is at all right to write off that election. In fact, we think that is absolutely reprehensible. The Minister himself has talked about the parties negotiating together, with which we agree. He talks about a test of acceptability and a negotiated peace. What is the Government's policy to attain that objective?

Mr. Rowlands

In response to the first part of the right hon. Gentleman's question, I do not think that it is unfortunate. I think that the act carried out yesterday—claimed to be by the Patriotic Front—was deplorable and senseless.

As to the question about the internal elections, my right hon. Friend has made our position very clear. When 90 per cent. of the country is under martial law, when the press and radio are censored and when the external parties are banned, we find it very difficult—indeed, almost impossible—to talk of free and fair elections.

Our policy must be to seek to get a negotiated solution between all the parties involved. My right hon. Friend the Member for Anglesey (Mr. Hughes) has reported to the House his immediate findings. We shall continue to work with our American colleagues to see whether we can bridge the gap and build a process towards a successful conclusion of a conference that will bring all the parties together.

Mr. Pym

I think that that was a statement of some despair. What action are the Government taking to try to help bring about the conditions in which elections can take place? What is the policy to achieve a negotiated settlement?

Mr. Rowlands

I thought that the right hon. Gentleman and hon. Members on both sides of the House acknowledged, recognised and accepted the findings of my right hon. Friend the Member for Anglesey in his report—that the immediate calling of a conference would lead only to an unsuccessful conference and create greater danger. So what now? We must have patient negotiations and discussions. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary had discussions with Secretary of State Vance only in the last week or so to see whether we can build up, through quiet and undramatic diplomacy, and prepare the way for a successful conference. We shall judge that and tell the House when we think that the opportunity is right.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I propose to call one more hon. Member. I have had notice of an application under Standing Order No. 9 on this very question.

Mr. Amery

Is the Minister aware that Her Majesty's Government have given licences for the substantial and continuing export of arms to Zambia, from where the Nkomo guerrillas operate, and that at the same time we maintain sanctions against Rhodesia, thus preventing it from acquiring the same defensive equipment as the Zambians are acquiring?

Is he further aware that repeated statements by his right hon. Friend have virtually conferred belligerent status on the Patriotic Front? Therefore, he and his colleagues cannot escape some responsibility for the murder that recently took place.

Mr. Rowlands

The insinuations in what the right hon. Gentleman said are disgraceful. The military assistance that has been given to Zambia has been for the protection of Zambia. The implications or insinuations in what the right hon. Gentleman said about this equipment being used in support of Mr. Nkomo or acts of this kind are disgraceful.

One of the reasons why 59 people were killed in Rhodesia yesterday was that, for a decade or more, over 5 million Rhodesians have been deprived of their freedom and liberty as a result of Mr. Smith's actions.

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