HC Deb 11 January 1999 vol 323 cc21-34 3.31 pm
The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Robin Cook)

Madam Speaker, with permission I should like to make a statement on recent events in Yemen. There have been three separate developments affecting British nationals in Yemen since the House last sat. On Saturday, and again this afternoon, I have discussed those events by phone with the Prime Minister of Yemen, Dr. Iryani.

The most recent event was the kidnapping on Saturday of Mr. John Brooke from the compound of the oil company for which he worked, in the Marib area of northern Yemen. Our ambassador was in contact immediately with the Yemeni Prime Minister and Interior Minister to insist on full consultation with us on any steps being taken by the authorities to secure Mr. Brooke's release. This afternoon I have expressed to Dr. Iryani our strong view that the release of Mr. Brooke should be achieved through mediation, and the Prime Minister of Yemen gave me an assurance that no force would be used without consultation with us.

We currently have in Yemen a team of police officers who are preparing an account of the previous kidnapping. Two of those officers are experienced in hostage negotiation. We have made their skills available to the Yemeni authorities.

We have also been in contact over the weekend with the Government of Yemen about the five British nationals who have been detained there. We understand that the five men were detained on 24 December. Our embassy in Yemen first heard of the arrest of unnamed British nationals on 29 December and immediately demanded access to them, including through a succession of meetings between our ambassador and Yemeni Ministers. However, access was not granted until last Friday, when our consul-general immediately visited the prison in Aden but was given access to only three of the five men.

On Saturday, I stressed to the Prime Minister of Yemen the vital importance to us of obtaining access to all five men under detention in order to reassure ourselves and their relatives that they are well and being properly treated. Dr. Iryani undertook to make immediate inquiries and on Saturday our consul-general was permitted access to one of the other two men. Access to the fifth man is still being denied on the ground that he has Yemeni-British dual nationality. However, this afternoon Dr. Iryani assured me that access to the fifth detainee will be granted today or tomorrow.

On Saturday, I stressed to the Prime Minister that if the five men are to be charged, those charges must be brought soon. They and their relatives are entitled to know why they have been arrested, and the five men cannot defend themselves against allegations until they are charged. If they are not to be charged, they must be released. This afternoon, I sought and obtained fresh assurances from the Prime Minister of Yemen that all five men will have access to legal advice, that any charges will be subject to due process of law in open court, and that consular staff will have the right to attend.

I now turn to the tragic events arising from the seizure of 16 tourists in southern Yemen. Twelve British nationals, two Australians and two Americans were kidnapped by an armed group on 28 December. According to the Yemeni authorities, the kidnappers' key demand was the release of a number of Yemenis and foreigners arrested by the Yemeni authorities. As soon as we learned of the kidnapping, the British ambassador spoke to the Yemeni Interior Minister, Hussain Arab. He made clear our paramount concern for the hostages' safety. He pressed on the Yemeni authorities our strong wish that no precipitate action be taken which could endanger the hostages' lives.

The next day Yemeni security forces encircled the kidnappers and their hostages. There was a firefight, in which four of the hostages were killed. Three were British. I am sure that the whole House will join me in extending our deep sympathy to the families who grieve for those who were killed. The testimony of the survivors confirms more forcefully than any hon. Member can that all the hostages conducted themselves with the greatest courage and concern for each other.

There is still much confusion about how the firefight started and about whether hostages had been killed before the security forces intervened. At the request of the Foreign Office, a team of British police officers went to Yemen on 1 January. In close co-ordination with the visiting Federal Bureau of Investigation team, they are preparing a full account of what happened.

On Saturday, I expressed to the Prime Minister of Yemen the importance of full co-operation between our Governments in the investigation. We agreed that the best way for us to maintain sound bilateral relations was to work closely together in establishing the truth and in bringing the full truth into the open. It would be wrong to prejudge the police investigation or to anticipate what it may conclude about the handling of the rescue attempt by the Yemeni authorities. Let us be clear, however, that the primary responsibility for what happened rests with the armed gang who seized the hostages in the first place. Those responsible for seizing the hostages, and for the death of four of them, must be pursued and brought to justice.

I pay tribute to the British ambassador, Vic Henderson, to Consul-General David Pearce and to their small team. They have responded with professionalism and with total commitment to a succession of demanding events.

Two areas of public policy require to be reviewed in the light of recent events. The first relates to the travel advice issued by the Foreign Office. Our travel advice in relation to Yemen has for some time warned of the risk of kidnapping. Following the recent tragic deaths, our travel advice has been strengthened to advise against all non-essential travel to Yemen". Following the recent kidnapping of Mr. Brooke, our ambassador has today met representatives of the British community to impress on them the need for heightened vigilance, and to discuss with them the implications for their safety of recent events. All British nationals are being encouraged to re-register urgently with the embassy.

Our system of travel advice is widely held up as a model of good practice by other countries. It already tends to the side of caution, although it is necessary that it should not veer to over-reaction if it is to retain credibility among the public. We are constantly looking for ways of improving distribution of that advice. We need to be sure that it is seen by anyone thinking of travelling to dangerous parts of the world.

I am therefore inviting tour operators and other members of the travel industry to the Foreign Office to discuss how we can further improve the distribution of our travel advice. We hope to develop with them a voluntary agreement on advice to clients booking holidays to countries where there is a risk. We would wish such an agreement to include a commitment to notify our consular division when tours are being organised to dangerous countries.

The second area of public policy that we must review in the light of recent experience is how we can improve our support to other countries in handling the seizure of hostages. I can announce that the Foreign Office will appoint a police expert with experience in hostage negotiations as a consultant to the Foreign Office on counter-terrorism work. Our intention is that he or she will travel abroad to discuss the training needs of foreign Governments, and to offer advice on their handling of hostage-taking.

We shall also launch a global series of seminars and consultations to share best practice in handling terrorist incidents with countries around the globe. Last November, we held such a seminar within the G8 to pool expertise on handling kidnap cases. Now we must make sure that the expertise pooled at that London seminar is shared more widely with countries outside the G8. These initiatives reflect the two principles that must guide the conduct of our consular duty: first, that the safety of British nationals is our paramount concern; and secondly, that only we can succeed in securing their safety from terrorism only by close international co-operation in defeating the terrorists.

The whole House will wish to record its condemnation of terrorism. Kidnapping is a crime. It is the same crime whether it is committed for financial gain or for political reward, and it is as much a crime under Islamic law as it is anywhere else. I invite all hon. Members to join me in sending the firmest possible message to terrorists that we are determined to protect the safety of our nationals and to be robust in combating terrorism wherever it occurs.

Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe)

The whole House was shocked by the attack on British hostages in Yemen. Our deepest sympathy goes out to the families involved in the tragedy. We are also deeply concerned by other events in that country, including the continued detention without charge of British citizens and the abduction of John Brooke.

On the events surrounding the abduction of the tour group, can the Foreign Secretary confirm reports that the families were being informed of events by the tour company rather than the Foreign Office? The tour group was abducted on 28 December. The rescues and killings took place on 29 December, and the Yemeni ambassador was not summoned to the Foreign Office until 31 December. If it is true that the families were informed by the tour operators rather than the Foreign Office, can the Foreign Secretary explain why that should be so?

On the detention without charge of British citizens, can the Foreign Secretary confirm that they were detained on 24 December and that the families were not informed until 29 December; and even then, again, not by the Foreign Office, which was apparently informed by the families themselves of what had happened? If those reports are correct, how did the families know about the arrests before the Foreign Office? What explanation can the right hon. Gentleman offer for that?

On 17 December, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition asked the Prime Minister whether the Government had taken all possible steps to safeguard British lives and property at home and abroad", following Operation Desert Fox. The Prime Minister replied: We have done all that we can to safeguard British lives and property."—[Official Report, 17 December 1998; Vol. 322, c. 1102–03.] Can the Foreign Secretary say what steps were taken, not now, but then? Do not the steps that he announced today give the lie to the Prime Minister's answer to my right hon. Friend?

The Foreign Secretary will be aware that on 31 December, I called for joint investigations into the circumstances surrounding the abduction of the British tourists and the events surrounding the subsequent attempts to release them. I pointed to the vital importance of establishing why the Yemeni Government acted in the way they did.

The Foreign Secretary referred to the team of British police officers in Yemen, but there are reports that it has not been granted the facilities necessary to participate fully in the investigation. Can he say what co-operation has been received from the Yemeni authorities and what part British representatives have been allowed to play in those investigations?

On 30 December, I wrote to the Foreign Secretary asking for a review of the way in which assessment of risk to travellers is made in the Foreign Office and the basis on which advice is subsequently provided. I have yet to receive a reply to my letter, but I welcome what he had to say about the steps that he has taken. Can he confirm that there will be a full review in the light of those steps, and that he will report to the House on the outcome of that review?

I also welcome what the Foreign Secretary said about terrorism. The whole House will join him without reservation in his condemnation of terrorism—but does he have the faintest inkling of how ill his words lie with the Government's continuing release of those convicted of the most despicable terrorist offences without any progress being made on decommissioning?

The last statement from the Foreign Secretary on the on-going situation in the Yemen was made on 29 December. Why has he not appeared on the media to deal with the issues in the past few days? The events have given rise, yet again, to serious questions about the way in which the Foreign Office has discharged its duties. Can the Foreign Secretary assure the House that, when they have come to an end, he will review all aspects of the way in which the Foreign Office has dealt with these events and publish the results of that review, so that public confidence in the Foreign Office under his stewardship, which must be at an all-time low, can be at least partially restored?

Mr. Cook

I thank the right hon. and learned Gentleman for his bipartisan support for condemning terrorism. Of course, we would very much regret it if it were the case that any relatives felt that the Foreign Office had been slow in notifying them. It is not necessarily surprising that a competent and well-organised operator of that tour may have known of the relatives and next of kin before the Foreign Office, but I assure the House that I am confident that we were expeditious and competent in contacting relatives known to us.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman asked why relatives of the five people who were detained were not informed earlier. I told the House that we did not know of any British nationals detained until 29 December and we did not obtain any names from the Yemeni authorities until last week. We have made it clear that we expect clear, swift notification from the Yemeni authorities of any British nationals who may be detained by them. As for contact with relatives, we obtained access on Friday to see those detained. Three of them were visited that day and the relatives' lawyer was phoned by the Foreign Office on Friday to give the results of the visit. I cannot think of any swifter response by which to share with them the information that was available to the Foreign Office.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman asked what action was taken after the recent confrontation with Iraq which might have a bearing on the matter. Our travel advice was updated on 20 December to warn those who might be contemplating a visit to the Yemen of the rising tension in the area and the need to keep abreast of developments. It is the case that, at first, co-operation between the Yemeni authorities and the Metropolitan police was not as close as we would have wished. I am pleased to say that the word from the Metropolitan police officers in the Yemen is that they are now receiving satisfactory co-operation from the Yemeni authorities, who have shared with them the results of their investigation.

As I stressed to the Prime Minister of the Yemen—I am pleased to be able to tell the House that he fully agreed—the best way for us to ensure that this matter does not become a matter of greater contention in our bilateral relations is for both Governments and investigating teams to work closely together to establish the truth and bring the full truth out into the open.

Finally, we are confident that the way we develop our travel advice is correct; no one has suggested otherwise. We are equally confident that we have the best possible information on which to base that advice. The criterion is simple: it is to safeguard the British population—their safety is our paramount concern. However, we are open to helpful and constructive points as to how we might improve that advice. That is why we have sought dialogue with the travel industry—to build better consensus and understanding on the criteria employed in putting together the advice.

Lastly, I turn to the right hon. and learned Gentleman's attempt to turn this event into a party political occasion. I have to say that those remarks were more demeaning to him than they were damaging to the Government, and I think that on reflection at a future date he will wish that he had not made them.

Mr. Donald Anderson (Swansea, East)

The whole House will welcome the two specific initiatives taken by my right hon. Friend on the tourist industry and travel information and on the advice about dealing with hostage-takers. As he said, it is of paramount importance that we have the closest possible co-operation with the Yemeni Government. Will he confirm that the Yemeni Government are now allowing the Metropolitan police officers to interview those hostage-takers who are in detention? What is his response to the reports in the British press at the weekend that over Christmas a camp was held in north London at which individuals were given military training that might be relevant to taking extremism and terrorism into areas such as the Yemen?

Mr. Cook

The Metropolitan police officers in the Yemen have not had access to the suspects currently under detention there. The issue is not clear cut and it is by no means clear that, if the roles were reversed and the police officers of a third country came to Britain to interview suspects whom we were holding under charges, we would necessarily grant such access to the investigating authorities of another power. Still, the Yemeni authorities have co-operated fully in passing to our police officers the results of the interrogation and also other parts of their investigation. At present, we are satisfied with the level of co-operation and I have pressed the Prime Minister of Yemen that we should maintain the fullest co-operation.

I have seen the reports about a training camp. The camp referred to was in north Wales, I think, rather than in north London—

Mr. Anderson

Finsbury Park.

Mr. Cook

There were also reports of one in Crowborough. There have been investigations into the matter. The training provided purports to be survival training and also martial arts. We have not established that there was any breach of British law during such training. However, we will watch closely to ensure that, if any offence is committed under the provisions of the Criminal Justice (Terrorism and Conspiracy) Act 1998 that prevent conspiracy to commit terrorism abroad, the Act is properly enforced.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome)

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his very full statement. Will he accept the strong support of Liberal Democrat Members for the action that he has taken in respect of Mr. John Brooke and our shared concern for Mr. Brooke's safe recovery?

Regarding the British detainees, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that three conditions must obtain if we are to ensure fairness of process? First, there must be full and free consular access to all the detainees. Secondly, they must be made clearly and unambiguously aware of the charges that they face. Thirdly, there should be no obstruction to the legal support to which they are entitled.

With regard to the tragic events in December, and looking back to previous events in Chechnya, I welcome the review that the Foreign Secretary has established about travel information. However, will he examine two specific points? First, is there a case for placing a clear duty of care both on tour operators and on employers before people are put into positions of danger, or before bookings are made?

Secondly, will the Foreign Secretary examine the ease of access to travel information for the ordinary citizen as opposed to the tour operator? Travel information appears on the internet, but not with quite the ease of access that is provided by the State Department in the United States. It is important that the currency of such information be constantly maintained. The information on the internet today was last updated on 29 December. It does not take into account events that have occurred since that date, which might suggest to a member of the public that it was not current.

Lastly, will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that every co-operation will be given to Dr. Iryani and the Yemeni Government in sharing expertise and information so that we can fulfil our commitment, which I am sure that the whole House shares, to stamp out acts of terrorism wherever they occur?

Mr. Cook

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his questions and his support for our activities in relation to John Brooke. We have pressed for consular access to all five detainees, and, following my most recent conversation with the Prime Minister of Yemen, I am confident that we shall soon be able to secure that access.

I have made it clear that if there are to be charges, they must be brought soon. It would be wrong to detain any of those men without charges being brought against them. If charges are not brought, they should be released.

I am pleased to say that the consulate in Yemen has suggested a lawyer for the five men. I understand from the Prime Minister of Yemen that the lawyer will be given access to the men, and we shall certainly insist on their having proper legal advice on how to conduct their defence against any charges.

The hon. Gentleman referred to a duty of care on travel operators and employers. We can consider that and I would not rule out any way of improving our advice on safety for British travellers and workers; but I doubt that such a duty of care would be easy to operate because, as events in Yemen have tragically shown, circumstances in a country can change unexpectedly and swiftly. Nevertheless, we are anxious that our travel advice should be fully known to operators, employers and members of the public. That is why it is available by phone and on Ceefax and an internet website. We are happy to consider any other way of distributing that advice and we shall consider that when we meet travel operators.

Mr. Roger Godsiff (Birmingham, Sparkbrook and Small Heath)

I thank the Foreign Secretary for coming to the House and making a statement on the difficult situation in Yemen. I draw his attention to the fact that the families of the five British citizens who have been detained in Yemen were concerned and distressed because of the period between 29 December and 8 January when there was no access to the detainees and very little information was forthcoming about what was happening to them.

I thank the consulate service for the work that it has done since Friday in obtaining access to the men. Has my right hon. Friend had a full report from the service on the detainees' well-being? Has he emphasised to the Prime Minister of Yemen that there is a need for charges speedily to be brought and for a trial to be arranged—otherwise the men should be released?

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend quite properly echoes the point that I have made twice—that the Yemeni authorities must release the five men or charge them. Of course, they should be charged only if there is sound evidence on which the charges can be based.

I understand entirely the distress that must have been caused to relatives between 29 December, when they heard of the arrests, and 8 January, when we were able to share information with them. I can only say to the House and the relatives that we shared information with them on the very day that we obtained it. We had no information to communicate to them before 8 January.

The consul-general has visited four of the five men. My hon. Friend asks about their health. The consul-general reports that they appear fit and well and he did not see any evident points of ill-treatment. However, my hon. Friend is aware that one of those four has complained that he was ill treated in the first week of his detention. We are anxious to obtain access to the fifth person to reassure ourselves and his relatives that he also is fit and well.

Sir Teddy Taylor (Rochford and Southend, East)

While I fully understand that it is the Foreign Office's job to protect British citizens abroad, the Foreign Secretary must be aware of the danger of the Foreign Office acting as the emperor of the world when dealing with small and disorganised countries. He has this afternoon instructed the Government of Yemen to charge the five speedily or release them, but will he also make it clear that if, by chance, the five are found to have been involved in planning terrorism in another country, the Government will fully support that Government in dealing with them?

Will the Foreign Secretary also give a firm commitment that the British Government will do all in their power to make sure that any training establishment or organisation is dealt with? Although we appreciate that it is his job to help British citizens abroad, will he make it abundantly clear that if any of our citizens travelling abroad are involved in potential acts of terrorism, the Government will condemn them clearly and openly?

Mr. Cook

I plainly cannot make any comment that might be seen to have any bearing on whether or not there is any validity to the arrest of the five detainees, but on the general principle, British citizens travelling abroad are of course subject to the laws of the countries in which they travel. The objective of our consular support is to make sure that if they should be charged, they are dealt with fairly within the legal process of a country and that the legal process is fair and open to scrutiny, with adequate opportunity provided for British citizens to defend themselves. We shall continue to make sure that that consular duty is provided.

As for any links that may or may not exist with the United Kingdom, I remind the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East (Sir T. Taylor) that last year we passed the Criminal Justice (Terrorism and Conspiracy) Act 1998, which made it a specific offence to conspire to commit terrorist offences abroad. Of course, we shall be vigilant in examining whether that may apply to any case at present or in the future.

Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield)

Has the Foreign Secretary received any evidence, official or unofficial, that any of the kidnappings might have been related to the Desert Fox operation? Is he aware that many people throughout the middle east regarded the bombing of Iraq by America and Britain as terrorist in character? Will he confirm that when the Prime Minister saw Nelson Mandela in South Africa recently, Nelson Mandela strongly condemned the attacks on behalf of the South African Government?

Mr. Cook

My right hon. Friend invites me to go over a debate that we held at length before the House rose for the recess. In response to his suggestion that the bombing of Iraq was a terrorist activity, I say only that we are absolutely confident of the full legal base on which we operated, rooted in Security Council resolutions.

In response to the particular point on which my right hon. Friend pegged his comments, it is clear from the statement by the Yemeni authorities that the principal objective of the kidnappers was to secure the release of Yemeni and foreign citizens who had been detained by the Yemeni authorities. That demand was made by the kidnappers, and the Yemeni Government are clear that that was the motivation behind the hostage taking, and no other.

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk)

Can the Foreign Secretary confirm whether any of the British armed forces or security forces are involved on behalf of the British Government in giving advice to the Yemeni authorities in dealing with these kidnappings, given their tremendous expertise? I relate this in particular to the case of Mr. John Brooke, of Hardley Street in Norfolk. The Foreign Secretary will be aware that, given the recent tragedies in Yemen, Mr. Brooke's family and friends know that anything that is done or said can have a deep and immediate impact on Mr. Brooke's survival.

What advice is the Foreign Secretary giving to British companies that have British nationals based in Yemen, who are obviously very vulnerable to such kidnapping and ransoming?

Mr. Cook

The whole House fully understands the deep anxiety that must be felt by Mr. Brook's family and friends as to his position. We shall certainly do all we can to secure his safe release. With that in mind we have, in Yemen and through my phone calls from London, impressed on Yemeni Ministers that we wish his release to be achieved by mediation and negotiation, not violent confrontation. I am pleased that we have been given an assurance that before any military action was taken, there would be consultation with us during which we could express our concerns.

Two police officers currently in the Yemen with the British police team are skilled and experienced in hostage negotiation. I have urged the Prime Minister of the Yemen to allow them to provide advice, and I believe that the Yemeni authorities could be helped if they were to take advantage of the skills and experience of those two police officers.

On the other point that the hon. Gentleman raises, there are some 300 British nationals in the Yemen. Many of them are working for companies with experience in the Yemen, and with bona fide commercial interests there. We are urging them to adopt extra vigilance in the light of recent events, and we are seeking to update our register of British citizens in the Yemen. We very much hope that those measures will succeed in defeating the attempts of others who may seek to emulate the events of recent weeks.

Mr. George Galloway (Glasgow, Kelvin)

The shadow Foreign Secretary confirmed, not just today but over the weekend, his reputation for being unable to see a belt without hitting below it, and it greatly diminished him and the House.

Will the Foreign Secretary accept my congratulations on the statement that he gave the House today? It was a masterly statement, outlining a very fine set of steps, which I believe will improve our position. However, will the Foreign Secretary resist the temptation—which he has been offered here today—to conflate the holding of the innocent British hostage, Mr. Brooke, with the holding under Yemeni law of the five British citizens, whose mystery tour to Yemen may turn out to be a good deal more sinister than the shadow Foreign Secretary currently thinks it was?

Yemen is a poor third-world country, which happens to have the misfortune to be amidst the maelstrom of middle east problems and the rising tide of fundamentalism, without many of the state resources that ideally would be in place to deal with them. I hope that the Foreign Secretary will resist the temptation to equate the Government of Yemen with the terrorist gangs who are responsible for holding our British citizen, Mr. Brooke, at this time.

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend makes a fair point that the Government of Yemen are faced with a very serious challenge from fundamentalists and extremists, who certainly have demonstrated a willingness to use weapons and to use violence. I expressed to the Prime Minister of the Yemen our full support for him in combating terrorism.

Our legitimate interest as a Government is to ensure that, where our nationals may be caught up in events such as the seizure of the 16 hostages, we are fully consulted and their release is effected in ways that do not put their safety at risk. As I said in my statement, that should not cloud the fact that the prime responsibility for what happened to those hostages who, tragically, were killed, rests with those who seized them in the first place; and that our condemnation of terrorism throughout the world must apply very strongly to those who put their lives at risk.

Mr. Jonathan Sayeed (Mid-Bedfordshire)

As one who has travelled to Yemen many times, and who narrowly evaded being kidnapped some years ago—I believe in the late 1970s—I have some understanding of the tribal rivalries and the fact that, in that country, the Government's writ does not go much further than the foothills. What I find extraordinary is the fact that Foreign Office travel advice for that country—where anarchy rules so frequently, and where there has been terrorism consistently, for decades—was not substantially upgraded after the bombing of Iraq. Perhaps the Foreign Secretary can explain why. He needs to tell us why neither he nor the Foreign Office took action after what we knew would cause considerable difficulty in the Muslim world.

Mr. Cook

The hon. Member speaks from experience of the country, but he is wrong in what he says about the travel advice. The entire first paragraph of that advice was rewritten to draw attention to the tensions in the region. However, I must tell the hon. Member that at present all the evidence is that the seizure of those 16 hostages was prompted not by anything to do with Iraq, but by the detention of alleged extremists and fundamentalists within the Yemen. It was a Yemeni seizure, but it was also a Yemeni issue. In that respect, our travel advice cannot in any way be properly faulted.

Mr. Keith Vaz (Leicester, East)

I thank the Foreign Secretary for speaking twice over the past three days with Dr. Iryani, the Yemeni Prime Minister, and for his personal intervention, which has created a very important dialogue at a very high level of the Yemeni Government. His approach, which is to work with the Yemeni authorities, is the right one. Will he consider appointing a special envoy, accountable to the Foreign Secretary, who can go to Aden in order to co-ordinate the various British agencies that are already there; or is he quite satisfied with the way in which matters have been co-ordinated in that country on our behalf?

Mr. Cook

In the present difficult circumstances, it would be unwise to express satisfaction. None the less, our ambassador and consul-general are doing an excellent job and receiving access to the highest level of the Yemeni Government. Our ambassador has spoken repeatedly to the Interior Minister and the Prime Minister of Yemen, and as my hon. Friend has rightly said, I have spoken twice in three days to the latter.

I am confident that our contact is at the highest level and working well. If, in future, we felt that a special envoy would have a role to play, appointing one would certainly be an option. We shall certainly take any option that will assist us in ensuring that we safeguard the rights and safety of British citizens.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate)

I welcome the part of the Foreign Secretary's statement on the appointment of a counter-terrorism hostage expert, on a retainer, to the Foreign Office; and the fact that the right hon. Gentleman has fence-built sufficiently to re-establish proper co-operation with the Yemeni authorities. Is not it a pity that we reached a point where that exercise was necessary?

Given that we have been sophisticated and robust in dealing with hostage-taking and terrorism in this country, and that Yemeni soldiers put their lives on the line to attempt to rescue the hostages, should not the Government's first reaction have been to defend and support the Yemeni Government in advance of any investigation into what happened, rather than allow the stream of criticism in the media with, seemingly, some official connivance?

Mr. Cook

We have been extremely careful in what we have said as a Foreign Office and a Government about these tragic events. None of us, as yet, is in receipt of the police investigating team's authoritative report on what may have happened. It is a matter of concern that an attempt—military action—to release the hostages was made without consultation with British authorities. We have very strongly expressed the view that we needed to be consulted before any such action was taken, and that we did not want any action to be taken that would put the safety of British citizens at risk. We regret that we were not consulted, which is why I impressed very strongly on the Prime Minister of Yemen that we must be consulted before any similar attempt is made in the case of Mr. Brooke. I welcome the fact that efforts to secure his release are proceeding by mediation and negotiation.

Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington)

Are reports that the kidnappers were calling for the release of the five arrested men true? Is there any link between Supporters of Sharia—the organisation in London—and the five men who are being held in gaol? If there were a connection—or not—would we, in certain circumstances, allow a British official to appear in court in Aden either in their defence or for other purposes?

Mr. Cook

If we were summoned by either the defence or the prosecution to supply an official to provide evidence that was relevant to court proceedings, we would of course make the most careful response and wish to help the legal process. We would certainly want to be of assistance, where it was relevant, to the defence.

My hon. Friend invites me to speculate on two points which may, or may not, turn out to be relevant to any future legal case affecting these five people. I shall decline the invitation to do so. I think that the whole House would agree that it would be wrong for us in any way to comment on that matter.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

Can any British tourist, British Council employee or expatriate feel safe when, as soon as Ramadan is over on Sunday or Monday, there is the prospect of yet more missiles raining down on Baghdad? Once upon a time, nobody was more eloquent than the Foreign Secretary on the effects of cruise missiles. If that is to be done again, what will be the effect in the Arab world?

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend's question, as I am sure he would be the first to concede, does not immediately relate to the events that we have been discussing today. In response to his point, may I say that there are no such plans? If there were to be any such event, there would be a full statement to the House and that would be the time at which to review the matter.

In the mean time, we are clear that our travel advice to all those going to countries in the region reflects such risk as there is. We are clear that that travel advice is correct, and with the travel industry, we wish to make sure that it is fully distributed and fully up to date. That is the immediate task on which we shall focus.

Mr. Tom Clarke (Coatbridge and Chryston)

I thank my right hon. Friend for a typically comprehensive, competent and concerned statement to the House. With regard to his reference to the British police, will they be working and investigating separately or together with the FBI, which he also mentioned? When does he expect their conclusions, and to whom will they report?

Mr. Cook

I can assure my right hon. Friend that there is full co-operation with the FBI team, and both sides are sharing with each other the fruits of their investigations. I do not know precisely when they will report. We expect the British team to return in the near future, but how long before it can submit a considered report is a matter for the team. The report will come to Her Majesty's Government and will be equally available to the Home Office and the Foreign Office.

Mrs. Maria Fyfe (Glasgow, Maryhill)

May I add my congratulations to my right hon. Friend? Does he agree that after the tragic events in Yemen at Christmas, the impression has been created in some parts of the media that people set off to the wilder and more dangerous parts of the world on holiday with no more information than a few paragraphs in a travel brochure, but that in fact that is not the case? Responsible travel companies give full information to would-be travellers. They also up-date it as quickly as possible when they get new information from the Foreign Office. They warn travellers that there may have to be last-minute changes to travel plans and suggest a substantial reading list to travellers, so that they can be fully informed about the countries that they are to visit.

That being so, if there are any changes to normal practice arising from the review, can my right hon. Friend tell the House what plans there are to publish them so that travellers can continue adventure travel?

Mr. Cook

I agree with my hon. Friend that the company concerned is a responsible, established company that maintains full awareness of the travel advice from the Foreign Office. One issue that we are anxious to address in our dialogue with the travel industry is the fact that because we review our travel advice regularly, there may well be occasions where our travel advice changes between clients booking their holiday and departing on their holiday.

In our discussions with the travel industry, we want to make sure that those who book holidays to places where there may be risks are provided with a telephone hotline number or access to the internet website or Ceefax, so that they know where to look for changes in the travel advice and can check it before departure. We think that that is a right duty of care towards clients booking their holiday, and we are anxious to ensure it through an agreement with the travel industry, so that all clients have up-to-date information at the time of departure.

Mr. Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield)

I agree with my right hon. Friend that our first thoughts must be with the families of the hostages tragically killed, the family of Mr. Brooke and the families of the men currently being held in Yemen. That is why it is important that we get to the bottom of what happened in the case of the hostages and insist that the men being held be brought to a fair trial or released.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that we should avoid the temptation, present in some sections of the media, for the matter to degenerate into some kind of anti-Yemenism? I do not ask him to speculate whether the following was the case, but if the Yemeni Government had been given information that British institutions or sites were under threat, the same sections of the media would be the first to criticise the Yemeni Government if they had taken no action. We owe it to a country with which we have long relations and which is attempting to establish, albeit imperfectly, a fledgling democracy, and to the Yemeni community in this country, not to allow an anti-Yemeni feeling to develop.

Mr. Cook

We have some legitimate concerns about recent events, which we have expressed to the Yemeni authorities. I have already highlighted two of those: first, that in the case of the first hostage seizure, military action was taken without consultation with us; and secondly, that we were not notified timeously about the people who had been detained by the Yemeni authorities on 24 December. None the less, I strongly endorse the general drift of my hon. Friend's question. It is important that everybody should recognise that the Yemeni authorities are faced with a serious terrorist challenge and that the people who are primarily responsible for the deaths that result from it are the terrorists themselves. That is why we are determined to work closely with the Yemeni Government to find all possible ways in which, together, we can defeat those terrorists.