HC Deb 07 March 1988 vol 129 cc21-5 3.30 pm
Mr. George Robertson(by private notice) (Hamilton)

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on the shootings in Gibraltar.

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Sir Geoffrey Howe)

As the House will have heard, three identified terrorists, two men and one woman, were shot dead by security forces in Gibraltar yesterday afternoon. Two of them had a previous criminal record of terrorist activity. The IRA has since admitted that the three were members of an active service unit on active service in Gibraltar. The background and facts are as follows.

Another known IRA terrorist, who was under surveillance by the Spanish authorities, recently crossed into Gibraltar and is thought to have carried out a reconnaissance for an act of terrorism. The activity undertaken suggested that the terrorist act might he in connection with the guard mounting ceremony, carried out on Tuesdays. The Gibraltar police were accordingly placed on high alert, and the police commissioner asked for military assistance in the light of his assessment of the threat.

Shortly before 1 pm yesterday afternoon, one of those subsequently shot brought a white Renault car into Gibraltar and was seen to park it in the area where the band for the guard mounting ceremony assembles. Before leaving the car, he was seen to spend some time making adjustments in the vehicle. An hour and a half later, the two others subsequently shot were seen to enter Gibraltar on foot, and shortly before 3 pm joined the third terrorist in the town. Their presence and actions near the parked Renault car gave rise to strong suspicion that it contained a bomb, which appeared to he corroborated by a rapid technical examination of the car.

About 3.30 pm, all three left the scene and started to walk back towards the border. On their way towads the border, they were challenged by the security forces. When challenged, they made movements which led the military personnel operating in support of the Gibraltar police to conclude that their own lives and the lives of others were under threat. In the light of this response, they were shot. Those killed were subsequently found not to have been carrying arms.

The parked Renault car was subsequently dealt with by a military bomb disposal team. It has now been established that it did not contain an explosive device.

Inquiries carried out by the Spanish authorities have matched keys found on one of the bodies with a Ford Fiesta car, subsequently found on the Spanish side of the border, which contained three false passports and items of equipment including insulating tape, electrical screwdrivers, a number of pairs of gloves, wire and an alarm clock. A key was also found for a third car. The search is continuing for this car and for explosives.

An inquest will be held in Gibraltar.

The suspect white Renault car was parked in the area in which the band of soldiers would have formed for the Tuesday parade. A school and an old people's home were both close by. Had a bomb exploded in the area, not only the 50 soldiers involved in the parade, but a large number of civilians might well have been killed or injured. It is estimated that casualities could well have run into three figures.

There is no doubt whatever that, as a result of yesterday's events, a dreadful terrorist act has been prevented. The three people killed were actively involved in the planning and attempted execution of that act. I am sure that the whole House will share with me the sense of relief and satisfaction that it has been averted.

I am equally confident that the House will wish me to extend our gratitude to the Spanish authorities, without whose invaluable assistance the outcome might have been very different. This co-operation underlines once again the importance of international collaboration in the fight against terrorism.

Mr. Robertson

May I start by congratulating those responsible on what appears to have been a well-planned operation, which must have prevented what would have been a terrible loss of life, involving soldiers of the Royal Anglian Regiment and members of Gibraltar's general public and tourists. Our gratitude is also due to the Spanish authorities for their role in protecting lives in Gibraltar. It is an excellent example of the co-ordinated international action that is required against terrorism.

The very fact that this enormous potential car bomb was placed opposite both an old folks home and a school underlines the cynical hypocrisy of the IRA, that ostensibly apologised after the Enniskillen outrage in November. This House speaks with one voice in condemning unreservedly those in Ireland who seek to massacre and bomb their way to power. These people are evil. They kill and maim and give no heed to the innocents who get in their way. They must be dealt with, if any democratic answer is to be found.

May I ask the Foreign Secretary the following questions. First, is he satisfied that those who were shot represent the total number of those involved in this conspiracy? Secondly, are arrangements being made to protect other potential IRA targets in Europe, and will the cost of such protection be fully funded? Thirdly, is there any evidence available to link Libya to this incident or to gun-running to the IRA in general? Fourthly, is there any evidence linking the Basque terrorist organisation ETA to this particular incident?

Fifthly, since there is still considerable confusion in the reports of what happened yesterday, can the Foreign Secretary confirm that those who were shot were warned before fire was opened, and can he say whether there is to be any inquiry into the circumstances of the shooting? Finally, will he place on record, in order to counter the continuing speculation, whether this operation involved the Metropolitan police special branch or the SAS?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his robust and unqualified support. It is of the utmost importance that those who threaten, maim and kill the citizens of this country should know that the actions that we take and are obliged to take against them command the united support of this House of Commons. I thank him also for his tribute to the co-operation of the Spanish authorities and of all those concerned with this matter, and I join him in his forthright condemnation of the cynical hypocrisy of the IRA when one compares what it said after the Enniskillen tragedy with what happened yesterday.

As for the hon. Gentleman's first question, I said in my statement that at least one other known terrorist had been under surveillance ahead of yesterday's events, so it is plainly not possible to say whether all those potentially concerned have been arrested or dealt with. As to the threat to other targets throughout Europe, I can assure the hon. Gentleman that all questions of security affecting potential targets are under constant review in the light of the development of the threat and information about it. Questions of funding have never been allowed to stand in the way of security.

As for the involvement, or possible involvement, of Libya or ETA, I am not in a position to comment on either of those matters, although the hon. Gentleman will be familiar with other examples of the involvement of Libya, notably in connection with the vessel Eksund.

As I have said, the three people concerned were approached by military people operating in support of the Gibraltar police. They were challenged at that time, and the movement that they then made led the military personnel to conclude that their own lives and the lives of others were under threat. The matter, of course, will be subject to further amplification as further evidence becomes available, but I have given the House the full extent of my information at present.

Sir Bernard Braine (Castle Point)

As there can be no doubt whatever of the cost in human life both to the men of my county regiment and to the citizens of Gibraltar had the dastardly and cowardly assault been successful, will my right hon. Friend and learned Friend convey on behalf of the entire House of Commons and the people of this country our profound gratitude to the security forces and, indeed, to the Spanish authorities for foiling this murderous design?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I shall certainly convey the thanks of the entire House to all those concerned with the conclusion of the matter, along the lines expressed by my right hon. Friend.

Mr. David Alton (Liverpool, Mossley Hill)

I should like to identify myself, and my right hon. and hon. Friends, with the statement that the Foreign Secretary has made, and with his forthright condemnation of terrorism and those who seek to take innocent people's lives.

May I press the Foreign Secretary further on the links between the IRA and other international terrorist groups, and ask him whether this active service group was in any way involved in the transportation of arms, including the surface-to-air missiles—the SAM 7s—which are now believed to be in the island of Ireland? Will he say what action is being taken to strengthen international cooperation throughout Europe in defeating terrorism?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

Again, I must respond that I am not able to comment on the particular point that the hon. Gentleman has put to me, although other evidence shows very clearly the existence of links between the Libyan authorities and the IRA terrorist movement. I can make no specific comment at this stage. Certainly, the experience of this case underlines what we have learnt so clearly—that the closest possible international co-operation is necessary against terrorism and the threat of terrorism of all kinds. That is why the House has asked me to express its appreciation of the co-operation offered in this case by the Spanish authorities.

Sir Antony Buck (Colchester, North)

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that it is gratifying that almost the whole House appears able to unite in congratulating the security forces on what they have achieved? Is it not also gratifying that there appears to be substantial international co-operation in seeing that these evil gunmen do not get away with more terrorism? Are there any gaps in this? Are there any nations in which there is not full co-operation, other than the obvious ones such as Libya?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I am grateful to my hon. and learned Friend for his comments in support of the security services and international co-operation. I hesitate to say that there are no gaps, but, as he knows, it has been the purpose and policy of Her Majesty's Government to do everything possible to secure the greatest possible international co-operation. That remains our objective.

Mr. Harold McCusker (Upper Bann)

As the Spanish authorities have their own territorial dispute with this country over Gibraltar, will the Foreign Secretary convey to them the particular thanks of the people I represent for helping to rid us of those extremely dangerous people, who thought as little of the lives of innocent Gibraltarians and Spaniards as they do of those of people in either Northern Ireland or this country?

Can the Foreign Secretary tell us whether those people were travelling as citizens of the Irish Republic, using Irish passports; and, if so, what representations have been made to him this morning by the Government of the Irish Republic?

Finally, does the Foreign Secretary accept that, if a member of the security forces has to produce a weapon and then feels compelled to fire that weapon, he has no alternative but to shoot to kill?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

In answer to the last point, the terrorists in this case were shot. As I have told the House, the military personnel involved concluded that their own lives and the lives of others were under threat, and that there was no other way of protecting life.

As for the hon. Gentleman's question about passports, I am afraid that I cannot give him a comprehensive or detailed answer now. One of the features of such cases is the existence of more than one passport, not always of the same nationality. As I have told the House, three additional passports were found in the second car on the Spanish side of the border, and there may be more discoveries of that kind.

I conclude my answer to the hon. Gentleman by saying that his tribute to the co-operation of the Spanish authorities will certainly be transmitted and I am sure that it will be well received. The incident that was so narrowly averted underlines, as the hon. Gentleman made clear, the reckless willingness of the IRA to disregard human life no matter of what nationality or where it may be found. It is for that reason that international co-operation against terrorism is so vital.

Mr. Michael Colvin (Romsey and Waterside)

The House strongly supports my right hon. and learned Friend in paying tribute to the security forces, with help from Spain, for the way in which they prevented the murder of hundreds of innocent people in Gibraltar. Will he acknowledge that it shows that terrorism knows no boundaries—that it can strike anyone, anywhere, at any time? The people of Gibraltar may sometimes be irritated by the delays at their frontiers with Spain, but today's action shows that Spain, Britain and the people of Gibraltar stand together in the fight against terrorism.

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. We all stand together in the fight against the wicked and continuing threat of terrorism. In that fight we all share a common interest in the freedom of movement across frontiers as far as possible. However, that must always come second to our determination to take whatever action is necessary to prevent terrorism in every way possible.

Mr. Eric S. Heffer (Liverpool, Walton)

As someone who has always opposed terrorism, whether of the IRA or anyone else, and who still condemns terrorism and who, like everybody else in the House, would have been affronted if people had been killed in Gibraltar, can I ask the Foreign Secretary to explain why those three people who, although accepted as members of an active service unit of the IRA, were shot and killed when it was admitted that they were not carrying guns and had not planted any bombs in Gibraltar? Can the right hon. and learned Gentleman explain why that happened and how that can help us in the fight against terrorism? Will that not help terrorism?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman must stand almost alone in the House in offering that point of view.

Mr. Heffer

Well, I have done that before.

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I have described the circumstances giving rise to suspicion in this case. I have described the circumstances in which the terrorists were shot. I have made plain to the House the statement by the IRA that the three people were members of an active service unit on active service in Gibraltar. It is difficult to see how I could possibly conclude that the security services could have acted other than they did when faced with the events of that day.

Mr. Ian Gow (Eastbourne)

Is my right hon. and learned Friend able to confirm that the co-operation between Madrid and London and the cross-border cooperation between Spain and Gibraltar could not possibly have been better in this case and that that co-operation took place without the existence of an Anglo-Spanish agreement?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I acknowledge the generosity of my hon. Friend's tribute to the co-operation that took place in this case. I acknowledge also his ingenuity in pursuing one argument in whatever circumstances he may find it convenient to do so. As a matter of fact, there are a number of Anglo-Spanish agreements, at least two of which I helped to negotiate, which have helped considerably to increase the prospects of co-operation of the sort that took place.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I remind the House that this is a continuation of Question Time. There is a statement and a busy day ahead, in which a great many right hon. and hon. Members wish to take part.