Uganda

– in the House of Commons at 3:31 pm on 2nd March 1999.

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Photo of Robin Cook Robin Cook Foreign Secretary 3:31 pm, 2nd March 1999

With permission, I shall make a statement on the recent kidnappings in Uganda.

The events occurred in a remote part of Uganda and we do not yet have official corroboration of the most recent developments. We shall make further public statements as we receive confirmation, but the House will wish to hear what is known so far.

Yesterday morning 14 tourists, including six British nationals, were abducted from Bwindi Impenetrable national park in the Kisoro district of Uganda. In addition to the British nationals, those abducted included United States, New Zealand, Canadian, Australian and Swiss nationals. Several others who were present at the time of the attack, including one British citizen, managed to avoid capture. Those who did so returned to Kampala last night, where they were all debriefed and offered support by the British high commission.

As soon as we learned of the abductions, we were in immediate touch with the Ugandan authorities. Our high commissioner told the Ugandan Foreign Minister that we expected every effort to be made to achieve the rapid and safe return of those abducted. He made it clear that there should be no intervention that might put lives at risk. The Foreign Minister gave us that assurance and undertook to keep us fully informed. Two members of the high commission travelled to the area to liaise with the local authorities.

This morning we received reports that some of the hostages had been killed, but that others had been rescued. I regret to inform the House that our present information is that four of the six British nationals were among those who were killed. The whole House will wish to join me in expressing our deepest sympathies to their relatives and families.

We are seeking urgent clarification from the Ugandan authorities of the circumstances in which the deaths took place. It is not yet clear whether the Ugandan military intervened directly, but if that is confirmed we shall want an immediate explanation of how that happened despite the assurances that we were given yesterday.

From our interviews with those who escaped we believe that the abductors were a rebel group opposed to the present Government of Rwanda, and operating from over the border in the Democratic Republic of Congo. This is the first such incident in Uganda, although last August the same rebel group seized a number of tourists, including one British dual national, who had strayed over the border into the Democratic Republic.

Our travel advice for Uganda was last updated on 19 February. It warned: Rebels are periodically active in Uganda/Rwanda/Congo border areas around Kisoro district. Although the situation is currently peaceful, it can change quickly. Yesterday, in the light of the kidnaps, we revised our travel advice to warn against all travel to those border areas.

The Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central (Mr. Lloyd), has just returned from an extended trip to nine countries in the region, including Uganda and the other five countries involved in the conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In each of them he pressed the need for a negotiated settlement and underlined the willingness of the United Kingdom to do all that we can, both in the European Union and in the Security Council, to support such negotiations.

This latest tragedy demonstrates the distressing human cost of the continuing conflict and the urgent need for a settlement.

Photo of Michael Howard Michael Howard Shadow Secretary of State

I am grateful to the Foreign Secretary for that statement. The whole House will be deeply shocked by yet another unprovoked attack on British tourists. Our thoughts and sympathies go to their families, the families of the other tourists who died and the families of those Ugandans who were trying to protect them and whose duty it was to try to release them. They live constantly in the shadow of the conflict engulfing the Great Lakes region.

When was our high commissioner to Uganda made aware of the kidnapping? We are all obviously pleased to hear of the release of the French and some of the Australian hostages. Can the Foreign Secretary shed any light on how the French authorities were able to negotiate their release? Can he confirm that, in addition to the attack to which he referred, last week seven people were killed travelling in a road convoy between Goma, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Rutshuru, on the Ugandan border? If so, what consideration was given to updating the travel advice for the region in the light of that attack? When may we expect a statement from the Minister of State on the prospects for peace in the region?

Photo of Robin Cook Robin Cook Foreign Secretary

My understanding is that the high commission in Kampala heard of the events yesterday, and debriefed yesterday those who had returned from the area. The right hon. and learned Gentleman is not quite right to suggest that the French authorities negotiated a release of their citizens. Our understanding is that the two were not among those who were abducted from the camp. We believe that one of them had an asthma attack at the time of the abduction, and that may have influenced who was selected for kidnapping. I stress that our information is not confirmed and that there is no doubt much yet to be learned about what happened both yesterday and this morning.

I cannot confirm the precise details of the event in the Congo to which the right hon. and learned Gentleman refers, but there are killings there daily, and our travel advice is explicit and clear: we warn firmly against any travel to the Congo. There had been no such event in Uganda, however. We gave a clear warning in our travel advice about the dangers of the Kisoro district, but we had not felt obliged to warn against all travel to it. We have now done so.

I join in the right hon. and learned Gentleman's condolences both to the families and to those others whose lives have been put at risk. I agree absolutely about the importance of tackling at source the root problem of the instability and insecurity in the Democratic Republic of Congo. My hon. Friend the Minister of State has already issued a press notice following his visit, and I am sure that he will look for an early opportunity to brief the House or the Foreign Affairs Committee.

Photo of Mr Donald Anderson Mr Donald Anderson Chair, Foreign Affairs Committee, Chair, Foreign Affairs Committee

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the prime focus of our concern and attention must be the victims of the tragedy? Events are still unclear, but will he confirm that those Hutu rebels operating from the Democratic Republic of Congo are indeed the remnants of a number who took part in the genocide in Rwanda in 1994? They are a ferocious group, so it may have been difficult to negotiate with them. Will my right hon. Friend further confirm that Uganda, after its troubled past, is a relatively stable and friendly Commonwealth country and deserves our fullest co-operation in its problems at the border?

Photo of Robin Cook Robin Cook Foreign Secretary

I agree absolutely on that last point. My hon. Friend the Minister of State discussed the problems of the Great Lakes region when he met President Museveni only last week.

I cannot confirm whether those of the rebel group who were involved in the abduction yesterday were necessarily the same people who were involved in the genocide of 1994. In substance, however, my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson) is right—many of those who took part in the genocide in 1994 fled to the Congo, and have been there ever since. For the past four years, they have been seeking to destabilise the Government of Rwanda by repeated raids across the border. They are a serious part of the insecurity of the region, and achieving their disarmament must be important for security in the region.

Photo of Menzies Campbell Menzies Campbell Shadow Spokesperson (Defence)

May I associate myself and my right hon. and hon. Friends with the Foreign Secretary's expressions of sympathy? Although it may be too early to reach final conclusions in the absence of all the information, does he accept that as people more and more seek unusual holidays off the beaten track, the chance of incidents of this kind occurring in future will be much increased? In considering the nature of the travel advice that the Government now make available, would it be right to consider expressing that advice in the most blunt terms, even if that meant causing some offence to otherwise friendly countries? And in the aftermath of this tragedy, may we give some consideration to the role and responsibility of travel companies in these matters?

Photo of Robin Cook Robin Cook Foreign Secretary

I agree with the right hon. and learned Gentleman's last point. It is important that travel companies do not treat Foreign Office advice as some kind of indemnity against their own responsibility to use their discretion and judgment and to provide frank and clear warnings to those who travel with them. Our duty is to the public, and it is one that we seek to discharge by making sure that advice is as widely available as possible.

One of the issues on which we seek agreement with the travel agencies is on making sure that they disseminate to all their clients up-to-date Foreign Office advice, which is widely available on the internet and websites. We seek to provide frank and candid advice. In the case of Uganda, we did so—I have read it to the House. At the same time, we must be careful that we do not so err on the side of caution that the validity of our advice is discounted by people who may think that we are exaggerating. We must strike a balance between being cautious and being realistic, and our advice on Uganda did that.

Photo of Mr Kerry Pollard Mr Kerry Pollard Labour, St Albans

It has been confirmed that one of my constituents, Mark, a 23-year-old, is one of those who has been killed in this terrible tragedy. I have just spoken to his father, who is devastated by the news. However, he sends his thanks to the Foreign Office for its help throughout the night when the family was kept in touch with events as they developed. The family is looking forward to receiving the body back on Friday, when a proper funeral will take place so they can grieve properly.

Photo of Robin Cook Robin Cook Foreign Secretary

The whole House will share the distress of my hon. Friend's constituents and will wish him to convey the condolences and sympathy of the House to them. We have tried to maintain contact with the families and relatives. It has been a matter of deep regret to us that we have been unable to obtain confirmation faster, but we have sought to share all we know—at the point where we can be confident of what we know—with relatives, and we will continue to do so.

Photo of Bill Cash Bill Cash Conservative, Stone

Will the Secretary of State accept the condolences of the all-party Uganda group following this terrible tragedy? Does he further accept that the all-party group is aware that the Government have taken such steps as possible in the circumstances—vague as they are—to try to find out as much as possible? Does he accept that the all-party group hopes that this matter is resolved as quickly as possible, and that the stability of the region can be achieved as quickly as possible in the interests of people on both sides of the border?

Photo of Robin Cook Robin Cook Foreign Secretary

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's comments. There are two separate issues here. The first is the present tragedy, on which we are seeking to obtain as much information as possible as quickly as we can, which we will continue to share with relatives and the public. The other is the longer-term issue, and I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the Government remain committed to working with the Governments of Uganda and the other countries of the region to try to establish security which could, hopefully, tackle at source such tragedies.

Photo of Nigel Griffiths Nigel Griffiths Labour, Edinburgh South

I share my right hon. Friend's sense of outrage and deep sadness over the deaths in Uganda. Will he confirm that where there is an extreme threat to life, the Foreign Office will give firm advice which should be taken, and where there is not such an extreme threat but a risk, the advice will be proportionate to the risk?

Photo of Robin Cook Robin Cook Foreign Secretary

I can give my hon. Friend exactly that assurance. I believe that the Foreign Office travel advice in this case was absolutely correct. We have updated it since, and we shall continue to do so. It is, of course, only advice. It is for British citizens to decide for themselves whether they accept that advice, but our strong view is that it would be wise for them, like us, to err on the side of caution.

Photo of Julian Lewis Julian Lewis Conservative, New Forest East

In recent months there have been violent outcomes to kidnappings in Chechnya, Yemen and now in Uganda. Although I agree with the Foreign Secretary that it would have been infinitely preferable if today's case could have been resolved by negotiation, will he confirm that it is unwise to rush to condemn the Governments of these countries when they think it necessary to try to stand up to terrorist kidnappings by taking firm action if there is a chance of rescuing the hostages? We often took similar firm action when faced with terrorism, although fortunately more successfully on most occasions.

Photo of Robin Cook Robin Cook Foreign Secretary

I would agree with the hon. Gentleman that we should not rush to judgment on other Governments, and I am certainly not doing so in this case, because we do not have the facts of what happened this morning in the Kisoro district. The hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to the fact that the situation in the Great Lakes region is different from anything that we encountered.

We are anxious to share our own expertise and experience with Governments who are faced with a situation in which British citizens have been taken hostage. For that reason, as I announced to the House in January, we will be seeking the appointment of a part-time consultant with experience in police negotiations during hostage taking. I am pleased to tell the House that the advertisement for that post will be placed next week.