HL Deb 24 October 1983 vol 444 cc31-6

4.18 p.m.

Baroness Young

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement being made in another place by my right honourable and learned friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs. The Statement is as follows:

"Early in the morning of 23rd October, in carefully co-ordinated attacks, two huge bombs exploded in premises in Beirut occupied by United States and French units of the Multinational Force. At least 160 United States marines and 34 French troops were killed.

"The whole House will wish to join me in expressing our deepest sympathy to the United States and France and to the families of all those who lost their lives in this tragedy. We condemn without qualification those responsible for this hideous act.

"We have offered all possible help in the evacuation and treatment of casualties, both on the spot and in RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus. We are in the closest touch with our partners in the Multinational Force and with the Lebanese Government.

"The safety of our troops is naturally uppermost in our minds at this time. The Commander-in-Chief United Kingdom Land Forces, General Kitson, is going to Beirut to consider on the spot what may need to be done.

"I would like to pay tribute to the coolness and courage of our troops in difficult and dangerous circumstances. The staff of our Embassy in Beirut is also to be commended.

"The contributors to the MNF want one thing: the restoration of the Lebanese Government's authority and the independence of the Lebanon. Without the presence of the MNF contingents it is very doubtful whether the fragile ceasefire, agreed on 26th September, would have come about. Our own contingent, at the request of all the parties concerned, has been providing a guard for the meetings of the Security Committee set up to discuss the implementation of the ceasefire.

"National reconciliation talks are to open in Geneva on 31st October. In the light of this latest tragedy, it is now all the more important for all parties in Lebanon to get together urgently to settle their differences by negotiation".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, we thank the noble Baroness for repeating that Statement, and we wish to join her in expressing our profound sympathy to the United States and France, and to the families who have been bereaved. We also deplore and condemn this terrible act, which contravenes all standards of civilised conduct. As the noble Baroness said, we are of course also concerned about the British troops in Lebanon at the present time, and their safety is very much in our minds. We welcome the fact that the Commander-in-Chief United Kingdom Land Forces, General Kitson, is to visit Beirut, and we shall be interested to hear what he has to say when he returns to this country.

Would the noble Baroness comment on the possible danger that the neutrality of the multinational force might be compromised, or could be compromised, by an over-partisan attitude towards the Gemayel Government, given that that Government is only one faction of a fragmented community? Is it not essential that the multinational force should in fact stand aloof from the different factions in that unhappy country?

Secondly, can the noble Baroness say a little more about the future of the British presence there? Would it not be advisable at the end of the day, if it is clear that the multinational force is not succeeding in its function, that British troops should be withdrawn at that stage? Further, would she agree that Syria is essential to the achievement of permanent peace in Lebanon? Could she say whether Her Majesty's Government have had any recent contacts with Syria, in the light of the importance of that country in the shaping of events there?

Lastly, in view of the alleged possible connection between this terrible incident and Iran, could the noble Baroness confirm that there is a move to bring the Iran-Iraq war before the Security Council of the United Nations? Is she aware whether or not there is truth in the report that the Soviet Union would not veto such a resolution before the Security Council? Can she say whether Her Majesty's Government would support a move to have the Iran-Iraq war debated in the Security Council as a matter of urgency, in view of the possible connection between that war and what is happening in the region and this dreadful incident?

Lord Gladwyn

My Lords, we on these Benches, too, should like to associate ourselves with the expression of sympathy to both the United States Government and the French Government as regards this appalling incident, and indeed to the relations of its victims. We should also like to express approval of the action of Her Majesty's Government in giving such instant help in the way of affording facilities for the wounded in Cyprus and elsewhere. That was very welcome.

But would the Government not agree—and this is embroidering something which the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, has just said—that the sole purpose of the multinational force is to help in keeping the peace during negotiations, and in no way to take part in what is a savage civil war? Up to now, I believe that the British and Italian contingents are to be particularly commended for having done their best to observe this rather fine distinction, but whether it will he at all possible to observe it for very much longer only the future and, indeed, the negotiations can tell. What seems certain is that the multinational force is in no way equipped, nor does it have sufficient strength, to participate in a war between rival and bitterly hostile factions.

What also seems unlikely—I do not know whether the Government would agree—is that there is any Soviet involvement in this affair. After all, we can judge the actions of the Soviet Government only by what we deem their interests to be, and we can hardly imagine that it would be in the interests of the Soviet Union, any more than it would be in the interests of the United States, to be committed to direct intervention in what is, after all, an international wasps' nest.

Baroness Young

My Lords, I should like to thank both noble Lords for their response to this Statement and for the sympathies which they have expressed both to the United States and to France, and particularly to the families of the men who have died. The noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, commented on the need for the safety of our troops and this is a prime consideration at the present time.

It might be helpful, because both the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, and the noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn, raised the point about the role of the MNF in Lebanon, if I confirm that its purpose is to give general support to the Lebanese Government and armed forces in the Beirut area. I understand that the British contingent carries out patrols on designated routes throughout the city and reports back to the Lebanese authorities on what it finds. More recently, the British contingent has had the important task of guarding the meetings of the Security Committee which has been discussing the cease-fire arrangements. What is clear is that the presence of the contingent is very welcome both to the Lebanese Government and to all the Lebanese communities in the city.

On the future of our force, we are not going to withdraw our troops; but when we agreed to participate we made it clear that we would not undertake an open-ended and indefinite commitment. The noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, also raised the question of any possible negotiations with Syria, and I should like to confirm that we remain in contact with the Syrian Government. We understand some of their objections to the Israel-Lebanon agreement. They have legitimate security concerns, but these should be settled by negotiations with the Lebanese Government.

The noble Lord also asked me a question about the war between Iran and Iraq. I understand that this is currently being discussed at the United Nations, but I cannot comment on the outcome of this discussion.

The noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn, also raised the question of responsibility for the outrage, and whether or not there was any Soviet involvement. The Free Islamic Revolutionary Movement, which is a previously unknown group, has in fact claimed responsibility. As yet, we do not know who they are or what their affiliations might be.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, in view of the anxiety felt by the wives and families of the members of the British contingent, would my noble friend arrange for an early Statement to he made after General Sir Frank Kitson's report as to the steps being taken to give them the maximum protection, and, in particular, as to whether the patrolling (to which she referred in an earlier answer and which sounded to some of us to be a very dangerous operation) is being continued?

Baroness Young

My Lords, I fully appreciate the concern expressed by my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter on this matter. As I said in the original Statement, the safety of our troops is a prime consideration, and that is why General Kitson is going to the Lebanon to look further at what arrangements might be made. As I am sure my noble friend will appreciate, it would not be in the best interests of our own troops in the force if any of these arrangements were made known publicly. However. I should like to give this assurance. The fact that important steps are being taken will get to the wives and families of our troops out in the Lebanon, who must, I recognise, be very worried at this time.

Lord Hankey

My Lords, is not one of the most important aspects of this business the finding of a location for the reconciliation conference to take place? Until this conference meets, are we not liable to have further incidents of this sort? My recollection over many years is that the Middle Easterners tend to produce very rough incidents of this kind when international meetings are about to happen. Therefore, would it not be in everybody's interests that our Government, and the other Governments concerned, should do everything they can to hasten on the Lebanese meeting upon which so much depends?

Baroness Young

My Lords, the answer to the noble Lord, Lord Hankey, is that the national reconciliation talks are to open in Geneva on 31st October, so the timetable for those talks is, I am glad to say, quite soon.

Lord Kennet

My Lords, speaking for the Alliance a moment ago the noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn, asked if the Minister of State could confirm that the sole purpose of the multinational force was to help to put an end to the fighting, to keep the peace, to separate the combatants. The Minister of State then got up and said, "I can confirm that the purpose of the force is to help the Lebanese Government to reassert its control over the country". Can the noble Baroness really not see the difference between the two? I do not want to push her at this moment into taking one side or the other, but may I point out that there is a growing tendency on the part of the British Government to say that the purpose is to protect the present Lebanese Government and to help it to assert its control. Is there not a danger here? Is it not obvious that the quickest way to help the Lebanese Government to assert its control, if it really came to the point,would be to land very large armies and to drive all the factions back out of the country?

Baroness Young

My Lords, I had hoped that in my response to the earlier question I had made clear what the role of the MNF in the Lebanon is, but perhaps I could add further to what I have said. The contingent is there at the request of and by agreement with the Lebanese. This is contained in an exchange of letters which was published as a command paper in the treaty series. Parliament has been informed of the subsequent extensions of the contingent's deployment. I should like to confirm that it is a peace-keeping force and that it is intended to support the Government of the country in the peace-keeping efforts.

Lord Mayhew

My Lords, when the noble Baroness stated that the purpose of the MNF is to give general support to the Lebanese Government, did that exclude military support?

Baroness Young

My Lords, I really do not feel that I can add further to what I have said. As the noble Lord, Lord Mayhew, will know, the MNF is a peace-keeping force. There is a legitimate Government in the Lebanon. The purpose of the peace-keeping force is to give general support to the Lebanese Government and to try to help to keep the cease-fire and the peace in the Lebanon.

Lord McNair

My Lords, whatever the sole purpose of this force may be, may I remind the noble Baroness of a subsidiary function which it is in fact carrying out. If you drive through the Shatila Camp, every one or two hundred metres you see a sandbag emplacement, manned first by Italian and then by French soldiers. The House will readily imagine how reassuring this is to the inhabitants who are the survivors of September 1982. We can easily imagine what they would feel if they saw those troops being withdrawn. Therefore, may I ask Her Majesty's Government, in any discussions they have with our allies about withdrawal, to undertake not to withdraw until alternative arrangements have been made for this protective role? In this connection, may I ask whether any move is envisaged to alter the mandate of UNIFIL, which might well take over this essential function?

Baroness Young

My Lords, as I indicated in my answer to an earlier supplementary question on the withdrawal of our contingent in the Lebanon, we do not intend to withdraw, but when we agreed to participate we always made it clear that this could not be an open-ended commitment. So far as the American forces are concerned, I understand that the Americans will reinforce their contingent to make up their losses. So far as the French and the Italian forces are concerned, I understand that they are maintaining their contribution.

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