HC Deb 22 April 1987 vol 114 cc669-72 3.30 pm
Mr. Kevin McNamara (Kingston upon Hull, North)

(by private notice) asked the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on the recent attack upon British service personnel in Cyprus.

The Minister of State for the Armed Forces (Mr. John Stanley)

On Monday 20 April, a British Army Land Rover with two occupants came under grenade and automatic weapon attack on the main Nicosia to Limassol road in Cyprus. The driver, a British Army corporal, was lightly wounded in the leg but his passenger, the daughter of another British service man, was more seriously wounded in the back. Both were admitted to the British service hospital in Akrotiri. The driver is being discharged and the passenger's condition is stable. Quick evasive action by the driver almost certainly prevented fatalities. He is to be commended for his courage and quick thinking. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence, who happens to be in Cyprus for a visit to the sovereign base areas planned some time ago, visited the two casualties in hospital today.

No reinforcements have been requested, but our force levels in Cyprus are being kept under close review. It must be stressed, however, that additional British forces would not be of help in preventing an attack of this kind which took place, not in a sovereign base area, but in the republic itself, which the Cypriot authorities of course police.

In the light of this attack, the Commander British forces Cyprus has implemented special travelling procedures outside the sovereign base areas.

We have as yet no firm information as to the individuals or organisation responsible for this terrorist attack. We are giving every assistance to the Cypriot authorities in their investigation of this incident and we understand that two arrests have been made.

Mr. McNamara

I thank the Minister for his reply and join him in congratulating Corporal Bailey on his courage and presence of mind in preventing a more serious incident and trust that Miss Wilkinson will have a speedy recovery.

The security of our sovereign bases in Cyprus is not only important for our national interest, but necessary in supporting the United Nations forces and the sustaining role they fulfil in both Cyprus and the Lebanon.

When all Members of the House went to Cyprus last month— [Interruption.] Hon. Members missed a good day. When Members from both sides of the House went to Cyprus last month they were impressed by the resolution of the troops and the security precautions then being taken following the August attack on Akrotiri. However, the constant alert, the need to protect two bases and the outlying posts as well as the families not living in the sovereign base areas places a great strain upon the resources and men of the RAF Regiment and the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers.

Can the Minister of State say whether, following that incident, he will give further consideration to the sending of further line troops to protect the security of the bases while the present threat persists? Is the Minister satisfied with the new arrangements being made by the Commander British Forces Cyprus in order to protect the soft targets living outside the sovereign base areas?

Following the Government's cuts, will they reinstate the helicopter support squadron to such an extent that it will ensure proper aerial surveillance on the main roads between Akrotiri and Dhekelia? Will the Minister of State convey our congratulations to the Cypriot authorities for the fine police work carried out by the Cypriot force and for the great co-operation in this matter and the force's success in arresting two suspects? Finally, what evidence do the Minister and the Government have of the Libyan connection?

Mr. Stanley

I certainly endorse the importance that the hon. Gentleman attaches to the security of the sovereign base areas. The importance of that was highlighted, as he explained, by the attack last August in the sovereign base areas themselves. As the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members of the all-parliamentary group who visited Cyprus will be aware, that has imposed an additional level of stretch and commitment on our forces. However, we must consider the commitments that our forces face in relation to the commitments of the Army elsewhere. As the House is aware and will have seen in recent weeks, we face continuing pressure in Northern Ireland and a very important commitment to support the RUC. As the House is also well aware, we have recently faced a continental attack by a terrorist group in Rheindahlen.

We have considered the totality of the threats that we face, and the security requirements. I spoke to the Commander British Forces Cyprus and we are satisfied that at the moment there is no need to reinforce our forces in Cyprus. That would be a maldeployment and the wrong response to this particular attack which, as I have said, took place not in the sovereign base areas but in the area of the republic of Cyprus where the policing authority lies with the Cypriots.

The new travel arrangements have just been brought into place. I am certain that the Commander British Forces Cyprus has produced his best response to the new evidently higher risk involved in travelling on the public highway between the sovereign base areas and he will keep those new arrangements closely under review in the light of the event.

With regard to the hon. Gentleman's point about helicopter support, that relates to the separate United Nations commitment; we do not have —I stress this to the hon. Gentleman — the duty, and it would not be appropriate for us, to use helicopter support as a general surveillance force inside the territorial area of the republic of Cyprus. That, of course, is a Cypriot sovereign area and the policing and surveillance of that area is a matter for the Cyprus police.

In response to the hon. Gentleman's final two points, I appreciate his comments about the co-operation and skill of the Cypriot police force. We are working very closely with the Cypriots. I very much endorse his congratulatory comments about the work of the Cypriot police force. With regard to the hon. Gentleman's point about any Libyan connection, at present the identity of the terrorists and their precise motivation are matters for speculation.

Sir Anthony Kershaw (Stroud)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the House will have heard with some surprise the implication of the first part of his reply, that we do not have enough troops to send more to Cyprus? Who will defend our outside posts? What rights do our men have to defend themselves in those posts, some of which are very important? What co-operation do we get now and what will we get in future from the Cyprus forces?

Mr. Stanley

I must make it clear that I was not suggesting that we do not have enough troops to send more to Cyprus if we so wished. We could certainly send additional troops to Cyprus if we wanted. The point that I was seeking to make was that, in relation to the various threats that we have received, we do not believe that it would be justified now to reinforce the sovereign base areas when the threat has arisen outside those areas.

With regard to the ability of our forces to exercise their rights of self-defence inside the sovereign base areas in Cyprus, they have precisely the same rights as apply to British service men elsewhere inside British sovereign territory.

Mr. John Cartwright (Woolwich)

Does the Minister accept that it is impossible to provide military security for all 10,000 service men and support staff and their dependants associated with the sovereign bases in Cyprus, who inevitably present attractive targets for terrorists? Does he agree that the main responsibility for countering terrorism must rest with the Cypriot authorities and is he satisfied that the current level of co-operation and practical liaison between the British military authorities and the Cypriot police is sufficient to deal with this kind of threat?

Mr. Stanley

I agree that it is self-evidently impossible to provide total security for soft targets, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that we are very satisfied with the extremely close co-operation that we enjoy with the Cypriot police authorities.

Mr. Derek Conway (Shrewsbury and Atcham)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that Members of all parties who visited Cyprus last month returned with the highest regard for the professionalism of our troops there, as shown by the corporal when he came under attack? Does my right hon. Friend agree, however, that if the long-term military training value of Cyprus is to be achieved, only one and a half infantry battalions posted for the defence of our two sovereign base areas and the other half of the second battalion posted with the United Nations force are not sufficient to maintain a high standard of alert and to maximise the training potential of the island? Is my right hon. Friend aware that his assurance that that situation will be under continuous review will be welcome but that the posting of a further infantry battalion to the island would be even more welcome?

Mr. Stanley

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's comments about the professionalism of our forces in Cyprus, which has certainly been brought out in the response to the recent incident. My hon. Friend is right that some tension must exist between concentration on our training efforts in Cyprus and the carrying out of necessary security functions. Inevitably, that tension has been greater since the terrorist attack last August. I assure my hon. Friend that we are keeping the situation under close review.

I entirely take the point that, if the security threat were such that all the forces there had to spend all their time on security duties, the training value of our presence in Cyprus would be seriously undermined and we should have to consider carefully the level of our forces there.

Mr. John McWilliam (Blaydon)

Does the Minister agree that having half a regiment with UNFICYP and half in garrison does not allow sufficient training time, given the potential for training in Cyprus, and that the level of troops needs to be reinforced to the extent of allowing for half a regiment with UNFICYP and a whole regiment in garrison so that half the regiment could obtain the kind of training that is available? Is this not a further example of Government cuts in conventional defence?

Mr. Stanley

The hon. Gentleman seeks to make a political point, but he is wholly mistaken, not least because, if at some future time we chose to reinforce the numbers in Cyprus, we should be taking forces from elsewhere who would otherwise be engaged in training tasks, probably in the United Kingdom or Germany.

Mr. Peter Bruinvels (Leicester, East)

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that, no matter what the pressure on our troops in Cyprus and whether or not there are any subsequent attacks, we shall maintain our presence there so long as the people of Cyprus wish it?

Mr. Stanley

I assure my hon. Friend that that is certainly our policy.