HL Deb 25 November 1964 vol 261 cc843-6

3.57 p.m.


My Lords, with your Lordships' permission, I will now answer a Private Notice Question from the noble Lord, the Leader of the Opposition. With the permission of the House, I will do so by repeating a Statement being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, in answer to a Private Notice Question there about the latest situation in the Congo with reference to the British subjects involved.

As your Lordships doubtless know, the Congolese army reached Stanleyville yesterday morning. A few hours earlier, Belgian paratroops were dropped to rescue the civilian non-Congolese held prisoner there, in accordance with the plan which my right honourable friend described in another place on the 23rd of November. This was, as the House knows, conceived as a purely humanitarian operation. Monsieur Spaak has stated, and it is clearly understood, that the Belgian troops will be withdrawn as soon as their rescue work has been completed. Stanleyville was effectively occupied yesterday and, despite some resistance, the rebel leaders are all reported to have fled.

About a thousand Europeans and Asians were evacuated to Leopoldville yesterday and about a thousand more are being evacuated to-day. There are estimated so far to be between thirty and forty Europeans dead, of whom thirty are Belgians. Eighty wounded arrived yesterday in Leopoldville. The number of Congolese dead is not yet known. I am sure your Lordships will join in expressing sympathy to the relatives of those of all races and nationalities who have died in this unfortunate operation, and to those who have suffered in this horrible experience.

The only Commonwealth citizen known to have died, a Canadian missionary, was killed by retreating rebels outside Stanleyville. Our Vice-Consul has reported that all British citizens in Stanleyville are believed to be safe. Thirteen British subjects are known to have been evacuated to Leopoldville, including three children. They are in good health. Fourteen Canadians and 100 Indian citizens have arrived safely at Leopoldville. We have so far no other information about British subjects. A Royal Air Force ambulance team with medical supplies and food arrived in Stanleyville this morning. Our aircraft are assisting in the evacuation.


My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord for having repeated this Statement which was made in another place. I think that probably the first feeling we have is a feeling of relief that the British subjects, to whom the noble Lord referred, are believed to be safe. I hope he will be good enough to keep the House informed if he has any further information at any time.

I would join with him, too, in sending our sympathy to the relatives of those who have been killed in this truly dreadful story. The decision on whether or not to carry out this operation must have been very difficult for the President of the United States and the Belgian authorities, and I think perhaps it is impossible for anybody to judge whether it was right or wrong. Perhaps, on the whole, it was right, but at any rate it was done with the very best possible motives, and I am thankful to think that it has proved almost totally successful.


My Lords, may I, on behalf of noble Lords on these Benches, also thank the Minister for his Statement, and express our great regret at the losses and casualties involved? I was going to say what the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, has said: what a very difficult decision this must have been. In view of the great risk that was taken, I think we must be most thankful that the tragedy, as it was, turned out to be so comparatively slight, tragedy though it still is.


My Lords, I am most grateful to both noble Lords for what they have said, and particularly for what they have said about the difficulty of the decision. I think that all that can be said now is that the fact the casualties appear to be—and I underline "appear to be" because we have not yet the final figures—relatively slight has so far justified this very difficult decision.


My Lords, is the noble Lord in possession of any information relative to de newspaper reports that have now been circulating concerning the massacre of thousands of natives?


My Lords, I am afraid I am in possession of no more information than that which the noble Lord has himself. Some of the newspaper reports have turned out to be relatively accurate, and some of them have, fortunately, turned out to be fairly wide of the mark.


My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord whether he has any information with regard to other Europeans and other foreigners still in the hands of the rebel forces in places other than Stanleyville?


My Lords, we have no accurate information as to the number of Europeans outside Stanleyville. There are undoubtedly a fairly large number of ether Europeans who are outside Stanleyville. In the area to the North and East of Stanleyville itself there are approximately fifty—so far as we know, 53—United Kingdom citizens. There are also several hundred other British subjects or British-protected persons of Indian origin; but those figures are, in the circumstances, bound to he pretty rough, and I. should not like the noble Lord to think that this is accurate information.


I thank the noble Lord for his answer. Can he tell the House what steps, if any, are being taken to release these potential hostages still in the hands of the rebels?


As I understand it, the rescue operations are not yet completed. The noble Lord, I am sure, appreciates the fact that, in certain cases, if one proceeds too drastically with what appears to be rescue operations it can result only in the massacre of the people who are there. Sc this has to be left to the people on the spot to use their best endeavours to do it in the most effective way. All I would emphasise once more is that the object of this operation has been solely one on humanitarian grounds, for the rescue of Europeans and others, including Indians and other British-protected citizens, who are in that area, and was in no way an aggressive act or an aid to any of the factions in the present dispute there.


My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord a question which I asked the noble Earl the Leader of the House earlier? Will he consider sending an official message of sympathy from this House to Belgium over their losses? After all, I feel that Belgium has been one of our most staunch Allies in Europe and this would be a nice gesture.


My Lords, I should like to be given the opportunity to consider how we could give immediate effect to what the noble Lord has in mind and what is clearly the strong feeling in the House, but perhaps he would allow me to think it over and discuss it with other noble Lords.