US blocks return home for exiled islanders
Ewen MacAskill and Rob Evans
Friday September 1, 2000
The US is exerting intense pressure on the British government to block a return home by evicted Diego Garcia islanders, according to a state department letter obtained by the Guardian.
The confidential letter, sent to the Foreign Office on June 21, adopted an uncompromising position, saying that resettlement of the islands "would significantly degrade the strategic importance of a vital military asset unique in the region".
The US also disclosed that it intended to expand its Diego Garcia military base, already one of the most strategically important in the world.
The Chagos archipelago, a British overseas territory, was cleared of its inhabitants in 1973 to make way for the US base. The exiles, most of whom now live in Mauritius, want to repopulate two islands, Salomons and Peros Banhos, about 140 miles from the base, but the US has made it clear this option should be ruled out.
The US stance leaves the foreign secretary, Robin Cook, in a bind. The islanders have turned to the high court in London, demanding the right to return to the islands and a judgment early in October is expected to find in their favour.
This would create an awkward stand-off between the islanders and the British and US governments.
Mr Cook, though he supported the islanders while he was in opposition, must uphold treaty obligations with the US.
The letter, from a senior state department official, Eric Newsom, to Richard Wilkinson, director for the Americas, at the Foreign Office, left Mr Cook with no room for manoeuvre.
Mr Newsom, assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs, said: "I would like to take this opportunity to express the United States government's serious concern over the inevitable compromise to the current and future strategic value of Diego Garcia that would result from any move to settle a permanent resident population on any of the islands of the Chagos archipelago."
It added: "In carrying out our defence and security responsibilities in the Arabian Gulf, the Middle East, south Asia and east Africa, Diego Garcia represents for us an all but indispensable platform. For this reason, in addition to extensive naval requirements, the USG is seeking the permission of your government to develop the island as a forward operating location for expeditionary air force operations - one of only four such locations worldwide."
Diego Garcia, which is a base for B-52 bombers, was used extensively in the Gulf war in 1991, in further attacks on Iraq in 1998 and for operations elsewhere.
Mr Newsom identified the main benefits of Diego Garcia as both its strategic location and its isolation and anticipated further US investment in the base on the island.
He added: "If a resident population were established on the Chagos archipelago, that could well imperil Diego Garcia's present advantage as a base from which it is possible to conduct sensitive military operations that are important for the security of both our governments but that, for reasons of security, cannot be staged from bases near population centres."
Terrorists could use the islands as a base to launch attacks, he said.
He added: "Settlements on the outer islands would also immediately raise the alarming prospect of the introduction of surveillance, monitoring and electronic jamming devices that have the potential to disrupt, compromise or place at risk vital military operations."
Deceit in Diego Garcia
Early 1960s Secret correspondence between British and US governments about clearing the islanders from the Chagos archipelago in the Indian ocean to provide US with base at Diego Garcia.
1966 Britain leases Diego Garcia to the US until 2016, with an option of extending. It becomes one of America's most important bases
1971 A British ordinance strips islanders of legal right to return once they are moved
1973 2,000 islanders are removed. Britain and the US keep their actions secret from parliament, Congress, the public and, especially, the UN by claiming that the islanders are temporary labourers rather than people who had lived there for generations
1979 Outcry when British and US tactics emerge during Senate hearings
The islanders, who were resettled in Mauritius and the Seychelles, take
the British government to court claiming the right to return to the
Chagos archipelago. Many failed to assimilate in new countries and want
to go home. Britain claims they cannot. High court judgment due in