HL Deb 21 January 1986 vol 470 cc131-4

4.18 p.m.

Baroness Young

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement on the evacuation from the People's Democratic Republic of the Yemen that is 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:

"With permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the action being taken to secure the safety of British subjects and others in the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen.

"On the 13th January fighting broke out in Aden. The ferocity of the fighting presented grave risks to the safety of British subjects. In those circumstances, and with the full agreement of Her Majesty the Queen, the Royal Yacht 'Britannia', which was just leaving the Red Sea, was ordered to remain off Aden; Her Majesty's ships 'Newcastle' and 'Jupiter', with the Royal Fleet Auxiliary 'Bramblelear, were ordered to Aden at full steam in case they were needed for an evacuation.

"The situation in the country continued to deteriorate and the level of fighting approached that of a civil war. After close consultation with the Russians and French, both in Aden and in the capitals, it was agreed that evacuation was necessary and that as far as possible our efforts should be co-ordinated. On the 17th January, Soviet merchant vessels lifted off from Aden about 1,000 people, mostly their own nationals. On the same day, the Royal Yacht took off 450 people, 38 of them British—44 nationalities altogether. Eighty-one French nationals were then transferred to a French ship, and the rest of the evacuees were taken on 'Britannia' to Djibouti. The Royal Yacht then returned to the area and on the 19th January lifted off a further 209 people from an area 35 miles from the capital. Eighteen of them were British. These have since arrived in Djibouti, after transferring to HMS 'Jupiter'. I am now very pleased to be able to add that 'Britannia' has this morning picked up a further 15 British nationals from Little Aden. 'Britannia' is maintaining close contact with the vessels of the other nations involved and remains offshore nearby to take on board further parties of British and other foreign nationals as soon as conditions permit.

"So far no British subjects have been hurt. However, a number of British subjects still remain in South Yemen and we are continuing to work out with other governments the best ways of evacuating these widely scattered communities.

"On the evening of 17th January, when the embassy and residence had been rendered uninhabitable, the Ambassador, Mr. Arthur Marshall, decided that he should withdraw all members of the embassy. At the end of the evacuation, he accompanied those on board to Djibouti but then returned on 'Britannia' to the area, where he will remain with a member of his staff while the evacuation continues. Another member of his staff is on board HMS 'Newcastle'.

"The success of the evacuation so far would not have been possible without the help given by a number of governments, and in particular the governments of Djibouti, the USSR and France. This has been a remarkable demonstration of what can be achieved through close international cooperation, and I take this opportunity to thank them warmly for their assistance.

"I should like to express my gratitude to all the staff of the Ministry of Defence and of the Diplomatic Service, at home and abroad, who have been involved in this operation. I should also like to thank our Honorary Consul in Djibouti, Mr. Christopher Reddington. I know too that the whole House will join me in praising the calmness and efficiency of our Ambassador in Aden, his staff, and their families throughout this difficult period.

"Their example has been matched by the fortitude of the British evacuees who helped to organise the evacuation of hundreds of other nationals and who set an example of disciplined behaviour throughout.

"This is the first time that the Royal Yacht has been involved in an operation of this sort. It has received magnificent support from Her Majesty's ships 'Newcastle' and 'Jupiter' and Royal Fleet Auxiliary 'Brambleleaf', with its merchant navy crew. I should like to pay tribute to Rear-Admiral John Gamier and all the officers and crew involved for the courage and professionalism they have shown in carrying out this operation in conditions of danger and difficulty. We can all be proud of them."

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Young, for repeating the Statement. The events that have been taking place in South Yemen, which have left up to 9,000 people either dead or wounded, are disgraceful and deplorable. We join in the expressions of sympathy to those who have been through this ordeal and we pay our warmest tribute to those who have participated in the rescue missions, especially the captains and crews of HMS 'Britannia', HMS 'Newcastle', HMS 'Jupiter' and the Royal Fleet Auxiliary 'Brambleleaf'. Their conduct has been exemplary throughout. We also warmly endorse the tribute paid in the Statement to the ambassador and his staff.

We note the number of people who have been rescued thus far. Can the noble Baroness say exactly how many British citizens remain in danger in South Yemen? May we assume that the four ships will remain in the area and be available if necessary to continue in rescue missions even after all the Britons are safely evacuated? We are also grateful that close and effective international co-operation has been possible, and we support what the noble Baroness said about that.

Finally, will the noble Baroness confirm that the immediate objective should be to secure a return to stability in South Yemen? Does she see any hope of this? Have Her Majesty's Government been in touch with the Soviet Government on the matter as it appears from the reports we have read that they would also like to see an end to the fighting? Is it possible that we might co-operate with France and our other allies in making this necessary approach?

The Viscount of Falkland

My Lords, we on these Benches also thank the noble Baroness for repeating the Statement which has been made in another place today. I hope that I may be excused for waxing rather patriotic on this Statement because I think it is a great pleasure to welcome an episode which reflects so well on the British in every respect. It is seldom that we have an opportunity to do so these days with so many gloomy and distressing events given prominence in the press and on television. The exercise—as anyone who listened to the radio this morning will have heard from the account of Rear-Admiral Garnier—was carried through with the utmost good humour, efficiency, and courage by all concerned.

Her Majesty the Queen must be thanked, as has been most eloquently expressed in the Statement, for her gracious permission to use the Royal Yacht.

Another aspect which we greatly welcome is the co-operation between other governments and our Government in putting their shoulders to the wheel and carrying through something without bickering and recriminations.

However, the one aspect which really strikes us here—and I hope all noble Lords will share my sentiments—is that there have been some British attributes and British characteristics shown which exist today in no mean measure but which are often little recognised. I can name a handful. I put compassion first, with resourcefulness, courage, good humour and efficiency. All these have been shown. They are held not only by members of the Armed Forces and are not confined to admirals, guardsmen, politicians or to trade union leaders; they are held in full measure across our society. There are certain sections in our society—particularly the young—where these qualities are also held in good measure. I hope that this episode will give heart to the young who, it is to be hoped, will be given the opportunity in the not too distant future to be able to show these fine qualities.

Baroness Young

My Lords, I should like to thank both the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, and the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, for their very good, kind and positive reception to this Statement. In what they said they reflect what we all feel in the recognition of, and our sympathy for, those who have had to leave South Yemen, and our tribute to those who are responsible for their rescue. I was glad to hear the tributes paid to our ambassador and his staff in Aden as well as to those responsible in the Royal Navy and the merchant navy for what they have done.

I think we all recognise the very important role played by her Majesty the Queen and are glad to pay our tribute to her.

The noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, asked a number of questions about the Statement. He asked about the number of British citizens who remain. It is difficult to give an exact figure because not all visitors are registered at the embassy, but from inquiries from British companies and from the de-briefing of evacuees we think the figure is likely to be about 40.

The noble Lord asked about the ships. Yes, my Lords, as I understand it the ships will remain in the area while they have some useful work to do in evacuation. As regards 'Britannia', Her Majesty the Queen has expressed her great satisfaction that 'Britannia' has been used to evacuate so many people from the South Yemen and is very content for 'Britannia' to remain for as long as necessary.

It is very difficult to say what the long-term future will be. At present the situation on the ground is very confused. The trouble appears to be caused by personal and tribal rivalries rather than political and ideological differences. However, I can assure the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, that we have been in touch not only with the Soviet Union but with the French over the whole situation.