HL Deb 21 June 1967 vol 283 cc1413-8

4.0 p.m.


My Lords, perhaps at this point I may intervene to make a not very short reply to the noble Lord, Lord Carrington on the South Arabian Federal Army and events in Aden, and subsequently reply to the noble Lord, Lord St. Oswald; and that reply will be very short. I will first repeat a Statement made in another place by my right honourable friend Mr. George Thomson:

"I need hardly tell the House that yesterday was a day of black tragedy in South Arabia, with a waste of British and Arab lives. The train of events so far established is this. As the House knows, the Federal forces have had to be reorganised and expanded for their wider duties under Independence by 1968. This involves the amalgamation of the Federal Regular Army and most of the Federal Guard into the South Arabian Army; and the formation of the South Arabian Police from remaining Federal Guard elements and existing police forces. The South Arabian Army and South Arabian Police, as it is to be called, were formally established early this month. The pace, for reasons of which my right honourable friend reminded the House on June 19, has had to be rapid, but the programme has hitherto gone to schedule.

"Some ten days ago a group of officers of the former Federal Guard improperly petitioned the Federal Minister of Defence about alleged grievances they felt, basically for reasons of personal and tribal jealousy. This led to the suspension of the four officers primarily concerned from duty on June 17. The disturbances on June 20 arose directly from this dispute.

"Disturbances started with a mob of South Arabian Army apprentices and soldiers demonstrating at two Army camps apparently against tribal rivals. A good deal of damage was done after they had rushed the guard room and the officers' mess. Order was restored after about two hours. There was apparently no shooting and no British troops were involved.

"Later, at about 10 o'clock members of the South Arabian Police at Champion Lines attacked the armoury there. Shooting broke out in the camp and was also directed at random outside the camp and at Royal Air Force installations on the adjoining airfield. As a result of this firing seven British soldiers were killed and seven wounded when their vehicle was machine-gunned by a mutineer as it passed outside Champion Lines, and two Aden police and one British civilian were killed and one British civilian wounded when driving by also.

"As British lives, including those of women, were in danger, both within and outside Champion Lines, the British Commander of the South Arabian Field Force, a section of the South Arabian Police, asked for British military intervention. This request was endorsed by the Federal Supreme Council and was acceded to. Champion Lines is within Aden State where the British authorities are responsible for internal security. A company of British infantry thereafter entered Champion Lines. They came under fire and suffered one killed and five wounded, but the situation was brought under control just after noon. In total I regret to have to inform the House that in the shooting outside Crater ten British Servicemen were killed and 29 wounded, while one British civilian was killed and another wounded."

My Lords, may I interrupt the Statement here to say that the figures of casualties are rather uncertain, and I am not quite happy about the figure for the number of wounded. This Statement has been prepared, as noble Lords will appreciate, in a great hurry. The Statement goes on:

"At about 10.30 in the morning, some half an hour after the trouble at Champion Lines began, South Arabian Police at the Federal capital of Al Ittihad seized Government buildings there, did some damage and took up positions to resist any attempt to bring in British troops. There was no firing and the reports I have suggest that no expatriates were molested in the course of this. The situation came under control shortly afterwards.

"I would like to emphasise at this stage that British troops only had to be employed to deal with a mutiny among the new South Arabian Police Force where British lives were threatened. At no time were they employed against the South Arabian Army. The troubles there were dealt with effectively by that Army without our involvement. In Crater, however, where a general strike had been called the previous day, a false rumour was spread that British troops had fired on the South Arabian Army. The Aden State Armed Police reacted to this firing indiscriminately. Terrorists took advantage of the confusion and of the difficult geography and congestion of Crater, and widespread trouble ensued. Armed men secured the release of some 170 ordinary convicts from Crater gaol. Some of the gaolbreakers are reported to have climbed the minaret of a mosque and claimed over the mosque's loudspeakers that they were released detainees.

"When darkness fell the British forces were withdrawn to positions surrounding Crater rather than in it. The situation there remains serious and has also been complicated by a water shortage caused by a fractured main. Shooting is still taking place. Public buildings and commercial premises have been damaged. The High Commissioner reported last evening that it would"—

My Lords, I am sorry: I seem to have lost the last page. This is the difficulty in these circumstances; this Statement has been prepared in a hurry. Perhaps I can summarise the remainder. The High Commissioner thought it would be a matter of 24 hours or more before order was introduced into Crater.

The High Commissioner has paid very great tribute to the great restraint with which British troops have behaved in an extraordinarily difficult situation. I have myself seen these signals, and there is no doubt that our troops have shown the greatest moderation in dealing with a very difficult situation. I fear that I have not precise figures with regard to the casualties in Crater. They are of the same sort of order as those that occurred in the troubles around Champion Lines and in the Federal Police camp. I am afraid the precise figures were not available to me at the moment I came into the Chamber.

The only possible redeeming features, if I may add this comment, are that it appears that this mutiny was in no way directed at the Federal Government or Federal Ministers and that the Federal Army was itself able to cope with its own difficulty. Nevertheless, this is a matter for grave continuing anxiety, and I shall hope to keep the House informed.


My Lords, your Lordships will be very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, for the Statement he has read to the House and the comments he has made on it. I agree with him. I think the only redeeming feature in this very sad case is that it is not a revolt against the South Arabian Federation and the Government. Indeed, I think it is important that it should be known this was not a reaction against the Government proposals announced by the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, two days ago. What has happened, I think, bears out the uncertainty of the situation in South Arabia, and, if anything, it makes stronger the case that the noble Lord put for the Government's proposals two days ago.

I should like to associate those who sit on this side of the House with the tributes he and the High Commissioner paid to the British troops.


My Lords, we on these Benches are most grateful to the noble Lord for this Statement on the sad events that have taken place in the last day or two. I, too, should like to be associated with the tribute which the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, has paid to the restraint shown by the British forces. We wish them every success in the duties that they will undoubtedly be called upon to perform in the next week or two.

I should like to ask the noble Lord one or two questions. First of all, would the Government now contemplate hastening the withdrawal of the families of British Servicemen and civilians employed in Aden? It does not seem to noble Lords on these Benches that there can be any point in keeping them there any longer. Secondly, is there any truth in the statement which was made over the wireless last night that from the mosques in Aden there was exhortation to the faithful to go out and kill British troops?


My Lords, I am grateful to both noble Lords. I entirely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, that what has happened points to the dangers of the situation, and of course the danger, which we have all had so much in mind, of a deterioration into a Congo situation. There is absolutely no indication that the disturbances had anything to do with our Statement on policy. All the evidence we have—and I am quite satisfied on this—points to the internal situation, which I have described, and then the coincidence of the general strike (of which they have rather too many in Aden) which had begun 24 hours earlier. I am sure that the High Commissioner and the Commander-in-Chief, and our British forces, will make every effort to bring the situation under control, difficult though that may be.

The noble Lord, Lord Ogmore, referred to the possible withdrawal of families. This is always a difficult matter for judgment. I am sure your Lordships would wish to express our concern for the British civil community, and particularly those members of bank staffs and others who work in Crater and who have had to go through the experience of the disturbances there. At least the noble Lord, Lord Aldington, is familiar with what has been happening to his bank. I think that this question of the withdrawal of families must be left to the authorities on the spot. So far as I know, certainly most military families are well away from the Crater district, and so far the major civil disturbances have taken place in Crater only. I should not like to say that they will not take place anywhere else; but from my own observation when I was there earlier, I think the decision, for instance, earlier this year not to withdraw the families was entirely right. I am sure the military authorities will consider it. Meanwhile, the withdrawal of Service families is going on fast at the moment.


My Lords, in his Statement two days ago my noble friend announced that it was to be the policy of the Government to equip the South Arabian Army with automatic weapons, in place of the Lee-Enfield. May we take it that so long as British troops are stationed in South Arabia, and in the Aden State, the Government will satisfy themselves as to the loyalty and reliability of the South Arabian ground forces before they carry out that policy?


My Lords, the South Arabian ground forces are of course, already heavily equipped, and I must say that at the moment I should certainly not wish to express serious doubts about their loyalty. It may sound quite strange to us that officers should circulate a petition, but other Armies are different. I know something of the circumstances and of the particular jealousies that arose out of the merging of Federal Guard and Federal Army. I may say that the particular officers concerned were ex-Federal Guard. So much depends on the Federal Regular Army that I should not at this stage wish to express a loss of confidence, though clearly we must bear this point in mind.

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