HL Deb 08 March 1984 vol 449 cc382-4

4.32 p.m.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, with your permission, I should like to repeat a statement being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Minister of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs about the recent attack on a British vessel near Bandar Khomeini. The Statement is as follows:

"We learnt on 7th March that a British-registered ship, "The Charming", which formed part of a convoy under Iranian protection, was hit in an Iraqi attack in the northern Gulf on 1st March? The attack took place within Iranian territorial waters in the approaches to Bandar Khomeini.

"The ship, which was carrying a cargo of alumina ore, is reported to be substantially damaged and aground outside Bandar Khomeini. I am glad to say that none of the crew was seriously hurt and I understand that most of them have now left Iran. It has been reported that Turkish and Indian ships forming part of the same convoy were also hit.

" 'The Charming', like other ships in the convoy, had been and was required to maintain radio silence. Her owners did not subsquently inform Her Majesty's Government about the attack on their ship, and have requested no assistance.

"Her Majesty's Government deplore this incident and indeed all attacks on shipping in the Gulf area. We have summoned the Iraqi Ambassador to protest at his Government's action and to demand an explanation of it.

"Her Majesty's Government remain deeply concerned to see an early end to the wasteful and destructive conflict which is continuing between Iraq and Iran. We are working vigorously with the international community to that end."

My Lords, that is the Statement.

Lord Bishopston

My Lords, the House will be grateful to the Minister for repeating the Statement made in the other place. We recognise that it could refer to what is an increasingly menacing situation. The House will be relieved that despite substantial damage to the British-registered ship, none of the crew was seriously hurt. Can the Minister say why the owners were not in touch with the Government about the attack on their vessel on 1st March? We understand news came on 7th March and that they sought no assistance.

Can we be told any news about other British vessels in the area? The lack of communication could mean that others may be affected and that we are unaware of the situation. Is the Minister able to say what protection is being afforded by the Government while avoiding being drawn into the conflict? Does the reference in the Statement to Her Majesty's Government working vigorously with the international community for an early end to the conflict—a statement I am sure we all welcome—mean also that we are in touch with the United Nations? Finally, with the dangers of escalation, it is vital to be in touch with the super powers. We are grateful for the Statement and would appreciate replies to some of these questions.

Lord Mayhew

My Lords, we too are grateful to the noble Lord. When the Government ask for an explanation, we assume they will also ask for an apology and for compensation. Could we be assured about that? Secondly, the noble Lord will recall that last week United States naval vessels opened fire in a situation in which there was no threat or interference with shipping. Could the Minister assure us that British naval vessels have been given clear rules of engagement and that these rules of engagement have been explained to the Iraqis and the Iranians? Finally, may I ask whether we have any formal or informal understanding with the United States about military co-operation in the Gulf?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I am grateful to both noble Lords for their reception to this Statement. I shall reply first to the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Bishopston. We heard as far back as 1st March that an attack had taken place. The Iraqis announced as much, but it was only much more recently—namely, yesterday—that we heard that a British ship was involved. I should explain that the ships within the Iranian convoy are required by the Iranians to maintain radio silence, and thus it was I imagine that we were not able to hear of this matter sooner. As for other ships, I understand that the number of ships in the Gulf area varies from day to day; but on 2nd March, for example, there were believed to be 12 British ships in the Gulf altogether.

As for protection, this convoy was within Iranian territorial waters and therefore the question of Royal Naval protection does not arise. The ships were indeed sailing under the protection of the Iranian naval forces. In reply to the last point put to me by the noble Lord, Lord Bishopston, I can confirm that we are actively concerned to secure an end to this conflict, which has now dragged on for three or four years at least. We are seeing what can be done at the United Nations to achieve that, and we are particularly concerned to ensure that the Secretary-General of the United Nations enjoys all the support he can get in his efforts to bring this conflict to an end. As the noble Lord will recall, this conflict has proved to be particularly intractable and a number of efforts have been made to secure an end to it, and all have so far been unsuccessful.

Turning now to the remarks and questions put to me by the noble Lord, Lord Mayhew, the Government will almost certainly be seeking an apology, and as for compensation we shall wish to reserve our rights in respect of that matter. It may be that compensation will be appropriate. As for British naval vessels, I can tell the noble Lord that we maintain a patrol of two warships, available if needed, to come to the assistance of British shipping in the Gulf but I cannot really go further than my right honourable friend the Prime Minister did on 21st February in the other place.

Lord Greenway

My Lords, can the noble Lord shed any light on the actual ownership of this vessel which appears to be a rather grey area?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I understand that the owners are resident in Guernsey but I do not think that I can shed any more light than that.

Lord Mayhew

My Lords, if the noble Lord will forgive me, may I ask him to reply to the third question that I asked: whether, in view of the great dangers in the Gulf, we have any formal or informal understanding with the Americans about military cooperation in the Gulf?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I can assure the noble Lord that we are in close touch with all our allies, including the United States, on this matter.