HL Deb 14 May 1984 vol 451 cc1155-6

4.9 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Armed Forces (Lord Trefgarne)

My Lords, with your Lordships' permission, I will now repeat a Statement on the release of UNITA's British prisoners which is being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Minister of State for Foreign and Common-wealth Affairs, Mr. Rifkind. The Statement is as follows:

"I am pleased to inform the House that UNITA have released the Britons to our emissary and they are all on their way home. We are naturally very pleased that this difficult experience for both the prisoners and their families and friends is over. I should like to record my Government's thanks to the International Committee of the Red Cross for their assistance over the prisoners' welfare".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

Lord Elwyn-Jones

My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Lord for repeating that Statement, which must create a record for brevity—an admirable one at that. The release and survival of the hostages will, of course, be welcomed in all parts of the House, and we warmly congratulate them on their endurance and their courage. I should like to ask how many Britons continue to reside in Angola? Have any represent-ations been made to the MPLA Government regarding their safety, whether or not such a step be necessary? Perhaps the Minister will tell us. Finally, is it not important that we should be on our guard against tolerating or condoning hostage taking, necessary though I think was the intervention of Sir John Leahy in this particular case to secure the release of our fellow countrymen from their UNITA captors?

Lord McNair

My Lords, from this part of the House we thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. May I open with, as it were, a supplementary question to the question put from the Dispatch Box by the noble and learned Lord? The taking of hostages cannot be condoned, but is it, I ask the Minister, the correct term in this case? I thought that what happened, in an ordinary military operation, was that these people became civilian prisoners of UNITA; and UNITA appears to have done everything it could at least to get them, after a very uncomfortable journey, to a place from which they could be repatriated.

We rejoice with, I am sure, every noble Lord, and, of course, with the families, that these people are on their way home. We congratulate the Government on securing their release. Like the noble and learned Lord, we congratulate them on their remarkable endurance and fortitude, and we should like to be associated with the Government's thanks to the International Committee of the Red Cross. I hope I am not being too opportunistic if I ask the Minister whether, next time the ICRC has to ask for help for one of its emergency programmes, the gratitude of Her Majesty's Government might be expressed in a tangible way.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I am grateful to both the noble and learned Lord and the noble Lord. In answer to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Elwyn-Jones, there are about 300 British people working and living in Angola. We have had to make clear to them that we cannot be directly responsible for their safety, but the decision on whether or not to remain, particularly in some of the more difficult areas, is a matter for them and not for us.

In answer to the noble Lord, Lord McNair, I agree that the word "hostages" is not appropriate in this case. They were really prisoners and no demands were made of the British Government and, therefore, none was acceded to.

Lord Hatch of Lusby

My Lords, I join other noble Lords in welcoming the release of these prisoners, but is it not a fact that UNITA is a rebel organisation, with no international standing, rebelling against an internationally recognised state? Is it not also a fact that it is well known that UNITA is supplied with resources by the South African Government? Can the noble Lord tell the House whether any representations were made, either publicly or privately, to the South African Government regarding this outrage against British citizens by a rebel organisation?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, as the noble Lord will know, the UNITA organisation is not one with which the British Government have any particular dealings. Our only concern in this matter was to secure the release of those who had been taken prisoner, and our actions were organised only for that purpose. It is true that some logistic and administrative support was provided to us by the South Africans in respect of securing that release, but I am not aware of any other role played by them.