HC Deb 18 November 1997 vol 301 cc149-55 3.30 pm
Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe)

(by private notice): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on the attack on British citizens in Egypt on 17 November.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Doug Henderson)

On the morning of 17 November, six armed men went on a killing spree on the west bank of the River Nile near Luxor. At least 60 foreign tourists are reported to have been killed. Six Britons were confirmed to be among them. Three Egyptian policemen and the six gunmen also died. On behalf of the Government and, I am sure, of all hon. Members, I extend my heartfelt sympathies to the families bereaved by this atrocity and to those injured.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister spoke to President Mubarak of Egypt yesterday afternoon and expressed his condolences and our support in the fight against terrorism. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary expressed our condemnation of this barbarous act yesterday.

My noble Friend Baroness Symons is discussing the situation with the Egyptian Minister of Tourism, who is currently visiting London. The British embassy in Cairo and my Department have taken urgent action to discover the extent of the atrocity and whether there are any other Britons among the dead or injured. The British consul in Cairo has gone to Luxor to assist with repatriation of the British victims and to advise British visitors and holiday companies. There is also a consular representative at Cairo airport to assist those Britons who wish to leave the country.

The consular division of my Department is keeping its travel advice constantly under review. In April 1996, following the attack on Greek tourists in Egypt, the travel advice stated that security could not be guaranteed. In March this year, that advice was amended to recommend that travellers should respect advice on their safety from local security authorities. That reflected the fact that during the previous 11 months attacks in Egypt had been only on the security forces.

In September this year, following the attack on German tourists, the advice was strengthened to recommend that security could not be guaranteed. Yesterday afternoon, we issued revised travel advice, advising against visiting the Luxor area. Today, that advice has been further updated, to the effect that British visitors are advised to exercise great caution over visiting upper Egypt. Meanwhile, they are strongly advised to avoid the Luxor area until further notice. Visitors to all other parts of Egypt are advised to be vigilant and to respect any advice from the local security authorities.

In London, we have set up an emergency response team to deal with inquiries, which has already received around 1,000 calls. The team is also liaising with tour operators and the Association of British Travel Agents.

Mr. Howard

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his answer. I should like to associate Her Majesty's Opposition with the sympathy that he expressed to the families of the victims of this brutal attack and also the sympathy that he extended to the Government of Egypt.

There are reports that a Swiss medical team has been dispatched to Egypt. Are there any plans for the United Kingdom to offer medical assistance to the Egyptian authorities and the victims of this outrage? The hon. Gentleman was right to condemn the attack in unequivocal terms. What active steps do Her Majesty's Government propose to take, to help the Government of Egypt to counter such attacks? What progress has been made in following through the recommendations of the ministerial conference on terrorism, which I attended in Paris in July last year? In particular, has the recommendation for the setting up of a directory of competencies on counter-terrorism, which was proposed by the previous Government and accepted in Paris, been implemented?

Mr. Henderson

I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman for his questions. I can confirm that no request for British medical assistance has been received, but were it to be, the British Government would, of course, do what they could to assist the Egyptian authorities. I can also tell him that steps are being taken with the Egyptian Government—there is a constant dialogue to identify where there are terrorist dangers. As I am sure the right hon. and learned Gentleman will know from his previous responsibilities, this Government will be doing everything they can to work with the Egyptian Government to minimise risk.

Again, I can reassure the right hon. and learned Gentleman that every effort will be made to counter international terrorism at every international forum. It is a top priority of the Government; and it will continue to be so.

Mr. Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife)

I should also like to associate myself and my right hon. and hon. Friends with the expressions of sympathy and condolence voiced by the Minister and by the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard).

While the causes of fundamentalism, which gives rise to atrocities of this type, are extremely difficult to ascertain, does the Minister accept that the efforts of President Mubarak and the Egyptian Government to control fundamentalism are by no means made easy by the fact that there is, as yet, no lasting, just peace in the middle east, and the Oslo agreements have not been implemented either in fact or in spirit? What efforts will the Government make—particularly as Mr. Netanyahu is apparently in London again this week and the Foreign Secretary met Madeleine Albright last week—to impress on both the United States and the Government of Israel that fundamentalism in the countries of the middle east will be better controlled when there is a just and lasting peace for the Palestinians?

Mr. Henderson

There is no excuse of any kind for the atrocity that occurred in Egypt yesterday—no justification. Having said that, the Government will continue to do what they can in the various international forums to bring pressure on those involved in the middle east peace process to make progress towards at least an interim solution that can, I hope, reduce tensions.

As the hon. and learned Gentleman may know, a meeting was held last week between my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary and Mr. Netanyahu. At that meeting, it was stressed that there should be full implementation of the interim agreement, especially provisions relating to Gaza air and sea ports and transit arrangements for Palestinians between Gaza and the west bank; that substantial further deployments of Israeli troops from the west bank should take place; and that time out on settlement building and unilateral action in Jerusalem, which prejudices final status talks, should also be given the highest priority. We shall continue to press those points at other international forums.

Ms Chris McCafferty (Calder Valley)

Is my hon. Friend aware that three generations of one family in my constituency—mother, grandmother and five-year-old daughter—died in the tragic events at Luxor? I welcome his message of condolence to the family, and wish to associate myself with it. I also welcome his unequivocal condemnation of terrorism when it is so fanatical and destructive. Equally, it should be said that the vast majority of Egyptian people are democratic and peace-loving, so I welcome the statement of support for the Government of Egypt in their determination to maintain democratic government and secular democracy.

Mr. Henderson

I thank my hon. Friend for her comments: I am sure that the whole House would wish to repeat its horror at the events that have caused such huge grief to her constituents and constituency. There is a continual dialogue with the Egyptian Government, and one of the important issues discussed is to agree with the Egyptian Government what measures can be taken to ensure that democracy is reinforced at every opportunity in a difficult situation in Cairo. That is this Government's top priority, and we have taken the opportunity on several recent occasions to express it to our Egyptian friends.

Mr. Michael Fallon (Sevenoaks)

Is the Minister aware of the widespread shock and grief in Swanley today that a dream holiday for two pensioners should have ended in murder? Does he think that there is any general case for reviewing the way in which travel advice is issued to tour operators by the Foreign Office?

Mr. Henderson

I repeat my condolences to the hon. Gentleman's constituents and constituency, who have also faced terrible tragedy. Advice is given to travellers, travel agents and travel companies on a regular basis and a wide area of interest. In most circumstances, the degree of risk is explained to those involved, but ultimately it is for those who wish to travel to make a decision based on the information that they receive. It is my Department's intention to make sure that they are furnished with every piece of information that might be of help to them.

Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington)

The Minister will know that this is not the first time that Islamic fundamentalist movements have organised a terrorist incident, and he will know that it will not be the last. Is the Foreign Office developing a pool of expertise—that is, people who really understand what motivates those groups and who have studied the background to them—to meet that threat in future so that, as and when, inevitably, we are faced with more incidents of this nature in the western world, we shall be equipped with the Foreign Office expertise to deal with them?

Mr. Henderson

I can reassure my hon. Friend that my Department is fully briefed, not only on the factual situation in those areas of the world, but on political opinions expressed by the widest range of sources. I have every confidence in my Department's ability to brief Ministers and to provide advice on which the people of this nation can base their decisions.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex)

Does the Minister accept that while I agree with him about terrorism, I endorse the views of the hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Mr. Campbell) on the peace process and the difficulties that that makes for Egypt? Does he agree that Egypt holds a pivotal position in the middle east and that the Egyptian Government deserve whatever support we can give? Is he aware that, from time to time, we have been able to provide them with training from the Ministry of Defence? Will he examine whether there is a case for reviewing the training that is currently given, to see whether more training—or some of the more sophisticated techniques on which we are great experts—could be offered to our Egyptian friends?

Mr. Henderson

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his comments. I assure him that they are well taken. His points constituted part of our dialogue with the Egyptian Government. Where we can provide assistance, we would want to do so.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

I wish to associate myself with the sympathy that has been expressed, and with the Minister's views on terrorism. Luxor is a fine place with fine people, many of whom are impoverished. They will be devastated by what has taken place and its effect on tourism. After considering the terrorist situation, will the Government examine how help may be given to the people and economy of Egypt? Do the Government recognise that Islam was not a key link in this act? It is like the link that exists between some terrorist groups and Christianity in the western world. Most of Islam abhors such acts.

Mr. Henderson

I thank my hon. Friend for that comment. I am sure that it is true that the vast majority of the Islamic world condemns this atrocity in the same way as we do. He should address his remarks on assistance to Egypt to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development, but assistance is part of the regular dialogue between our two countries. I am sure that that will continue to be the case.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham)

While it is right to support the policies of the Egyptian Government that are designed to root out terrorism, may I support the remarks of the hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Mr. Campbell) about the importance of pushing forward the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians? That is critical if there is to be an end, or at least a reduction, of tension and of the underlying support for Islamic fundamentalism. It is important that, wherever possible, we try to encourage regimes in the middle east to make themselves more accountable and representative, because that also tends to diminish the support that underpins Islamic fundamentalism in the region.

Mr. Henderson

1 agree with the right hon. and learned Gentleman's point, which is essentially the same as that of the hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Mr. Campbell). The Government will take every action to try to push forward the peace process. I again refer to last week's important meetings between my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary and Mr. Netanyahu.

Mr. Mike Gapes (Ilford, South)

Is the Minister aware that, over the past decade, hundreds of thousands of British people, including me, have visited Luxor without any threat to our lives, and that Egypt depends greatly on international tourism? Is he also aware that the domestic roots of Islamic terrorism go back many years and that it is a little glib to associate this incident simply with the current difficulties of the middle east peace process? Does he agree that it is not helpful to try to blame the Israeli Government, directly or indirectly, for the actions of a small group of fanatical terrorists who do not represent any large number of people in the middle east?

Mr. Henderson

I hope that my hon. Friend will agree that it is less important for us to attribute blame for inactivity in the peace process and more important for us to encourage the Israeli Government, Arab Governments and our Palestinian friends to push forward the process so that general tension is relaxed, enabling progress to be made towards a more permanent peace. That is the relevance of the current situation to the peace process.

Mr. Tony Baldry (Banbury)

Does the Minister agree that it is important that responsibility for an atrocity of this type falls solely on those who caused it, not on anyone else? Will he acknowledge that the Foreign Office does all that is humanly possible to give the best possible travel advice, and that its advice is regarded throughout the world as of a very high quality, regularly updated?

When I had some responsibility for consular affairs in the Foreign Office in 1994, I visited Egypt to see what the Egyptian Government were doing to protect United Kingdom tourists. Does the Minister accept that it was obvious that the Government of Egypt were doing all that was possible to protect UK and other tourists? Does he agree that it is very important that we do not allow the people or the Government of Egypt to be isolated now? It is one of the terrorists' objectives to bring about such isolation, and if we allow the Government or the people of Egypt to be isolated or more isolated as a consequence of the tragedy, the terrorists will partly have succeeded.

Mr. Henderson

It is clear from the response of the whole House, which I believe reflects the view in the country, that all of us want to do what we can to help the Egyptian Government to improve security, so that foreign tourists can travel in Egypt and relax. As I mentioned in my response to some other hon. Members, there is a constant dialogue with the Egyptian Government on such matters, and if there is any way in which we can help them to improve their security, we shall do so.

Mr. David Tredinnick (Bosworth)

Building on the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid- Sussex (Mr. Soames), the former Minister of State for the Armed Forces, by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg), and by the hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Mr. Campbell), does the Minister accept that the visual image of Israelis building settlements in Palestinian territory is the root cause of this problem, and that it is that image that inflames the fundamentalists' cause?

Does the Minister accept that, ghastly though the tragedy at Luxor was, it occurred on the edge of what is really Greater Luxor, some distance from the city on the other side of the Nile? Can he reassure British holidaymakers in residence at Luxor now that the town is comparatively safe, and that we are talking about the small area of temples in the west, up against the hill?

Mr. Henderson

The advice that I gave in my original remarks was that the area of Luxor is not safe and persons travelling should be extremely wary about entering that territory.

I repeat that there is no justification at all, under any circumstances, for the action that was taken yesterday and the horror that it caused to families and citizens of this country and others. If one were to ask an analytical historian the cause of troubles in the middle east area over the centuries, one would be unlikely to receive one response, as there are many approaches. Obviously, however, it does not help for the peace process to be logjammed, and something must be done to get things moving, so that people in these areas have greater hope and reassurance.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate)

Does the Minister agree that the worst outcome would be for the tourist industry in Egypt to be destroyed? Does he further agree with my rough calculation that, even in the wake of yesterday's appalling and tragic events, a visitor to Egypt is 30 times more likely to die of natural causes than to be involved in a terrorist incident? Will his advice to travel companies reflect what is statistically likely to happen to people?

Does the Minister agree that the British people must stand shoulder to shoulder with our friends in Egypt against terrorism—a scourge that, unfortunately, we have both endured—and that the Foreign Office must be as robust as possible in its advice to tour operators and individuals, so that the risks are understood but encouragement is not given to unnecessary panic, which seems to have happened this morning?

Mr. Henderson

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that there will be no panic reaction by my Department, but we have a responsibility to provide advice to British tourists on the dangers that they may face when they travel. Our assessment is that there are serious dangers at the moment in Egypt, and there have been for some time. I explained in specific terms in my initial remarks what those were. We shall continue to monitor the situation day by day, and continue to give the best advice that can be given. Nevertheless, we shall want to help to promote tourism to Egypt, and that will be a continuing item in the dialogue with the Egyptian Government.