Yemen (British Nationals)

Oral Answers to Questions — Work and Pensions – in the House of Commons at 3:34 pm on 8th December 2014.

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Photo of Keith Vaz Keith Vaz Chair, Home Affairs Committee, Chair, Home Affairs Committee 3:34 pm, 8th December 2014

(Urgent Question):To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on the death of Luke Somers and the safety of British citizens in Yemen.

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

As the Foreign Secretary said on Saturday, the death of Luke Somers and Pierre Korkie at the hands of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula was a terrible crime. Both men had been held for considerable periods of time against their will. Hostage taking is a uniquely traumatic and deplorable crime, and we utterly condemn those responsible. Although Mr Somers was a US citizen, he had strong and important links to the UK. As the Foreign Secretary has said, his family and friends have spoken of Luke’s life and his work documenting the lives of ordinary people and the political upheaval in Yemen. Our most sincere condolences are with the families of both Luke Somers and Pierre Korkie.

We know from our own experience the difficulty of resolving hostage cases. In this case, the hostage takers had made a direct threat to Mr Somers’ life, with a three-day deadline. The threat to his life was very real. President Obama and Secretary Kerry have spoken about the extent of the efforts to bring Luke home safely and the decision to launch a rescue attempt. I have today spoken to the US deputy ambassador to relay my personal condolences on the murder of Luke Somers and to renew our commitment to work with our international and Yemeni partners to counter the threat from al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups.

Hostage taking and other forms of terrorism are a significant threat to British and other western nationals in Yemen, and to peace and security for the whole population of that country. As a result, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has advised against all travel to Yemen since March 2011 and that British nationals who are in the country should leave. Our advice on that could not be more clear.

Photo of Keith Vaz Keith Vaz Chair, Home Affairs Committee, Chair, Home Affairs Committee

I am grateful to the Minister for his answer and to you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question. I wish to join him in expressing deep sympathy to the families of Luke Somers and Pierre Korkie, the other hostage who was killed. This must be a devastating time for Mr Somers’ family, who only days ago made a desperate plea to his kidnappers for mercy.

Yemen is a country on the brink of a civil war. During the last year, thousands of people have died in sectarian violence, including the father of Abdullah al-Radhi, the Yemeni ambassador to London, who died after his home was bombed. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula bears responsibility for the death of Mr Somers. This group has been described by the CIA as one of the most dangerous terrorist organisations on the globe and it has now established control of part of this fractured country. When I last visited Yemen, the situation was extremely dangerous—so dangerous that the delegation was required to remain under guard in a fortified pod in the embassy grounds. The situation has deteriorated since then. Will the Minister confirm that the US embassy is considering withdrawing from Yemen? Is he satisfied that our embassy staff are being sufficiently protected? Will he also confirm how many of our staff, including locally engaged staff, still operate from there? We need to take all possible measures to stop more British citizens being killed. How many British citizens are still in Yemen? If he is able to tell the House, will he say how many of those are hostages?

On the raid itself, we can all understand why the US Government believed it was the right thing to do—there was a clear and imminent danger to Mr Somers. Were British security services involved in any aspect of this raid? Was the British Government consulted before the raid took place? Did we supply the Americans with any information? Could we have done any more to assist the US and Yemeni forces?

Finally, may I pay tribute both to the former Foreign Secretary and to the former International Development Minister, Sir Alan Duncan, for the part they played in Yemen’s transition during the Arab spring? Luke Somers loved Yemen; his family speak of his love for the people and their culture, and his desire to do good. This was echoed in the life of Pierre Korkie. Yemen is one of the poorest, but one of the most beautiful countries on earth. As the House knows, I was born in Aden and for the past 20 years have chaired the all-party group on Yemen. Yemen is an easy country to fall in love with. It is special. It is also on the front line in our fight against terrorism. Yemen is worth fighting for.

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for the tone of his urgent question and subsequent questions. He speaks about the threat to security in Yemen and the wider region, and I could not agree more. The situation in Yemen is complex, not least because of the number of terrorist groups that now operate in the country. We are working extremely hard with our allies to bring the parties to the table to agree the UN resolution that was signed in September.

The right hon. Gentleman asked a number of questions, but, as he will appreciate, I am unable to answer many of them in this House owing to the operational complexity of the matter. As I understand it, the US embassy has no intention of withdrawing from the country. We have a good relationship with Ambassador Tueller, who works extremely closely with our own ambassador, Jane Marriott, to whom I spoke this morning.

The British embassy continues to work in extremely difficult circumstances. We are following the situation carefully, as the security of embassy staff is of paramount importance to us. The right hon. Gentleman asked about British hostages. Again, he will be aware that it is the long-standing policy of successive Governments not to discuss such matters.

The right hon. Gentleman spoke about the importance of the region—our historical links with it and the need for us and other countries to invest in it. The Department for International Development has committed £4.4 million towards an orderly transition to peace and another £7 million to facilitate elections when they take place.

Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt Conservative, North East Bedfordshire

I echo the remarks of Keith Vaz. It is important that we offer our support to those members of the British embassy in

Sana’a who work in extremely difficult circumstances. Questions have been raised in the press about the nature of the operation, and I know that the Minister will not be able to answer all of them, but will he stress from the Dispatch Box that there is no equivocation about the death of a hostage? On every occasion, the responsibility lies with the terrorist and those who have executed the hostage. It does not matter how difficult the circumstances are, how complex the decisions are that need to be taken to free a hostage or what the difficulties involved in an operation are, it should be absolutely clear that the responsibility lies with the terrorist and it is for the terrorist that justice will eventually come.

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

I thank my hon. Friend for the work that he has done in this particular area and for his ongoing commitment to that, working with British influence and support in the region. He is absolutely right to place the blame for this situation on the terrorists. In this particular case, President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry issued statements on 6 December to illustrate why, in this particular case, it was felt necessary to set in place a rescue attempt. Such operations are complex and dangerous, and we are sad about the outcome.

Photo of Gareth Thomas Gareth Thomas Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Party Chair, Co-operative Party

I join my right hon. Friend Keith Vaz in condemning the murder of the British-born American citizen, Luke Somers, and his fellow captive, Pierre Korkie, in the early hours of last Saturday morning by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

I offer our deepest condolences to the families of both men who, as victims of terrorists, lost their lives in the most terrible of circumstances—moments away from rescue. Mr Korkie’s family believed that Pierre was due to be released very soon. I pay tribute to the courage of US special forces soldiers who got so close to rescuing both men.

As has been suggested, concerns were raised by some of Mr Somers’ family about whether a rescue mission should have gone in at this particular point. Will the Minister set out in further detail his view of the intelligence that suggested that there was an imminent threat to the lives of the hostages, and what discussions there were with the family following the earlier unsuccessful rescue attempt?

Given that Mr Somers was originally kidnapped in Sana’a, the capital of Yemen, what security advice is the Foreign Office now issuing to British citizens about travelling to, and working in, Yemen at the moment? Yemen has a turbulent recent past. What is the Minister’s view of the political and security situation, and does he think that there is a possibility of a more democratic future for the people of Yemen, to whom Mr Somers was clearly committed? How significant is the capacity of al-Qaeda in Yemen and what further action is being taken to limit such capacity? What concerns, if any, are there of possible links with ISIS? Lastly, Yemen remains a tragically poor country. How does its insecurity affect the ability of excellent organisations such as Islamic Relief, Save the Children and the Red Cross to tackle the hunger and poverty faced by too many Yemenis?

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

I am grateful that the House is united in condemning those acts of barbarism, and in its support on hostage matters.

The hon. Gentleman pays tribute to the US forces involved. The House should pay tribute to all special forces who put their lives in danger to attempt releases. They are successful in many cases. They do a huge amount of work behind the scenes of which the House is unaware. He is right to pay tribute to them. I should add that Yemeni special forces were also involved in the rescue attempt.

The hon. Gentleman asks for the greater intelligence picture. I am unable to provide the House with that information—he might have heard comments from a Government Member sitting behind me—and I hope he understands why. However, I would add that the video that was released made it clear that Mr Somers’ life was in danger, and it was apparent that he had three days to live. That gave the indication to the Americans that a decision had to made on launching a rescue attempt.

The hon. Gentleman asked about travel advice. I am not sure whether he heard me make it clear in my opening response that we have said since 2011 that no British citizen is advised to travel to Yemen. Indeed, any British citizens there now should leave.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the important question of the political landscape. Steps were taken at the UN General Assembly for the signing of the peace and national partnership agreement. It has been signed by all parties, including the Houthis, but has not been implemented. It is important that we get all stakeholders around the table to move the process forward. I should add that the Yemeni Government have issued a 100-day agreement, which will be put to Parliament in the next few days. I hope that will be the vehicle through which the stakeholders can come together. We look for a more federated model for governing Yemen.

The hon. Gentleman’s final point was on the connection between ISIS and al-Qaeda. There is a lot of friction between the two groups and they challenge and rival each other for superiority, but he is right to say that, combined, they provide a difficult landscape in the middle east. It requires the UK to work with our international partners in the region to tackle the problem.

Photo of Martin Horwood Martin Horwood Liberal Democrat, Cheltenham

This is obviously a complicated and upsetting case, most of all for the families of Mr Somers and Mr Korkie. Our thoughts must be with them, and we should blame only the terrorists for their deaths. However, is the Minister satisfied that communications within the international community and between Governments are adequate, and could they be improved, especially given the apparent revelation that the South African Government were in the process of negotiating Mr Korkie’s imminent release when he was killed—there is no suggestion that people knew that he and Mr Somers were being held together?

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his words of condolence, which will be heard by the families. Information has come forward to suggest that, in Mr Korkie’s case, there was a consideration of a potential release. There are continual suggestions of potential releases and they had happened in the past. Again, it was for the Americans to make an operational judgment. It was decided that the threat to life was imminent, and therefore that action needed to be taken.

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Shadow Minister (Education)

Will the Minister take the opportunity to place on the record the British Government’s position on negotiating and paying ransoms for hostages, so that the House can hear it again? Will he answer the question that my hon. Friend Mr Thomas asked on the number of British citizens still resident in Yemen, whom the Minister says should leave immediately?

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

The hon. Gentleman gives me licence to reiterate a point that all Members of the House need to reiterate: Britain does not negotiate on hostages. We very much encourage other countries to adopt the same policy—it makes it difficult for us if other countries pay ransoms. That came up at the NATO summit, when the Prime Minister made it very clear—he was very passionate on this to other countries—that we must be united, because paying ransoms makes things very difficult. It simply encourages the taking of more hostages.

I do not know the number of Britons in Yemen. I hope that it is extremely low, but if I may, I will get back to the hon. Gentleman on that.

Photo of Alan Duncan Alan Duncan Conservative, Rutland and Melton

These murders illustrate how increasingly dangerous more and more parts of the middle east are becoming. If Yemen is not to become wholly ungovernable, the House must give its full support to our efforts and those of other countries to underpin the legitimate Government of President Hadi and Prime Minister Bahah. As someone who has visited Yemen 10 times over the past few years, I urge the House to appreciate how important it is to hold that country together. Will the Minister reinforce the commitment of Her Majesty’s Government to the future of Yemen through the Friends of Yemen, which we co-chair, and other means? Will he commend, as my right hon. Friend Alistair Burt did a moment ago, the dutiful courage of officials in the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development who continue to work in Sana’a at considerable personal risk?

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

I thank my right hon. Friend for his work as special envoy to Yemen. I understand that he has visited the country three times since he undertook that important role, and I am grateful for the work and support that he gives to me and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Friends of Yemen was set up in London in 2010 and is an important organisation involving almost 40 countries, both internationally and regionally. It is designed to ensure that we provide what assistance we can, along with the Gulf Co-operation Council and other nations, to support Yemen through these difficult times.

Photo of David Davies David Davies Chair, Welsh Affairs Committee, Chair, Welsh Affairs Committee

Despite the sad outcome of this case, will the Minister say once again that we must support the Americans in refusing to pay ransoms, and that no blame whatsoever should be attached to those soldiers who bravely risked their lives to try to free that hostage?

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

I am happy to do so. As I said, those brave soldiers work extremely hard to perform such rescue attempts, and I underline again how important it is that this country does not pay ransoms.

Photo of Bob Stewart Bob Stewart Conservative, Beckenham

Like the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee, I too lived in Yemen as a young man. It is a beautiful country but it is extremely dangerous—it was dangerous when I was there, and it remains so. I stress to the House that any decision to go for a hostage release is taken because those who make that decision have no choice. Going for a hostage release is not something that people want to do—one always wants to negotiate. In this case, however, I am sure that those who made that brave decision did so and went for it because they had no choice, as I assume the Minister will agree.

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

The House is aware of my hon. Friend’s military experience. He was perhaps closer to some of these matters when he served, so he is aware of the detail that goes into such operations when they are planned. It is very difficult for any leader, whether in Britain or the United States, to decide to send in troops. The decision was made and it was believed that the evidence showed that a life was in danger. That is why the decision was taken.

Photo of Rehman Chishti Rehman Chishti Conservative, Gillingham and Rainham

Some reports have suggested that President Hadi’s Government have lost effective control of the country to the Houthi rebels. Is the international community doing everything it can to bring about national dialogue between all the tribes in the country, backed by real incentives to engage in that dialogue?

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Sanctions against former President Saleh and other former leaders are acting as spoilers in preventing President Hadi from doing his work. He has now appointed a new Prime Minister who, as I mentioned, has a 100-day agreement that we are working towards. My hon. Friend is right to say that unfortunately other countries such as Iran, which is linked to the Houthi, have a responsibility and role to play. They can either be part of the solution, or they can continue to be part of the problem.

Photo of Michael Ellis Michael Ellis Conservative, Northampton North

I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for his answers and congratulate Keith Vaz on successfully raising the matter, via you, Mr Speaker; he is a passionate advocate for Yemen and brings great knowledge of this issue to the House. Does the Minister agree that the United States special forces tried their valiant best in this incident and that, although on this occasion they did not succeed, they ought to be congratulated from every quarter on their courage and bravery? We wish them all the very best should they be needed in any future circumstances.

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

I, too, am grateful for the urgent question. I was not sure whether it would be granted, simply because it leans towards the operational, but it gives the House an opportunity to express our condolences, to underline the important message that we do not pay ransoms and to pay tribute to those brave soldiers, sailors and airmen who participate in special forces operations, on many occasions with their British counterparts.

Photo of Charlie Elphicke Charlie Elphicke Conservative, Dover

May I condemn this foul murder by terrorists and record my condolences to my constituent Penny Bearman, Luke’s stepmother, and to all his family? It is perhaps inevitable that the family are left wondering whether Luke might still be with us today had this operation not taken place. What comfort can the Minister give the family that it would have been undertaken only in the most extreme circumstances in which there was no alternative?

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

I reiterate our condolences to the family. I know that police liaison officers have been in touch with those members of the family living in Britain. If there is anything more we can do, the Government stand ready to provide that support in this difficult time. In difficult and dangerous circumstances a call had to be made, but I know that it was made in the knowledge that Luke’s life was in danger.