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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Bill Rammell): With the support of Her Majesty's Government, the United Nations Security Council on 15 November unanimously adopted resolution 1572 (2004) imposing an arms embargo against Côte d'Ivoire, effective for 13 months, following violations of the cease fire by Government forces. The embargo includes humanitarian exemptions, exemptions for the United Nations operation in Côte d'Ivoire (UNOCI) and the French forces who support them and for States engaged in the evacuation of their nationals or those for whom they have consular responsibility in Côte d'Ivoire. There is also an exemption to allow support for the process of restructuring Ivorian defence and security forces.
Resolution 1572 (2004) also imposes a travel ban and assets freeze against all who constitute a threat to the peace and national reconciliation process in Côte d'Ivoire, which will come into effect on 15 December unless the Security Council decides that the signatories concerned have fully implemented their commitments under the Accra III Agreement and are embarked towards full implementation of the Linas-Marcoussis Agreement. I will inform the House if the travel ban and assets freeze come into force.
The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Jack Straw):
My answer to the question from the right hon. Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) of 17 November, Official Report, column 1548W, set out what HM Government knew of reports of a planned coup in Equatorial Guinea earlier this year. This statement informs the House more widely of the position. At all times we acted properly, promptly, and entirely in accordance with international law.
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The United Kingdom has normal diplomatic relations with the Government of Equatorial Guinea, which is a former Spanish colony. We have no embassy in the country. Our high commissioner in neighbouring Cameroon is accredited as ambassador to Equatorial Guinea and has responsibility for relations with Equatorial Guinea. There is a British community of some hundreds, many involved in the energy sector. We have an honorary consul and a commercial attaché in the capital, Malabo.
The country has in the past suffered political instability. Rumours of upheaval and further instability are common. For example there were reports picked up by BBC monitoring in October 2003 of an imminent planned coup. These appeared not to be accurate; certainly, there was no coup.
On 29 January this year the Foreign Office received an intelligence report of preparations for a possible coup in Equatorial Guinea. The report was the first intelligence we had received. It was not definitive enough for us to conclude that a coup was likely or inevitable. It was passed by another Government to us on the normal condition that it not be passed on. There were, coincidentally, reports on Spanish radio, and in both El Pais and El Mundo on 30 January, making similar suggestions that a coup was being planned in Equatorial Guinea, and reporting that Spanish naval vessels were sailing towards the country.
British newspapers have this week reported that a South African national, Johann Smith, is claiming to have passed to contacts in British intelligence in December 2003 and in January 2004 a note setting out in detail plans for a coup. We have no record of this information being passed to British officials at any time before May 2004.
I received a submission, dated 30 January, from FCO officials on the weekend of 30 January-1 February which summarised both the media and intelligence reports and made recommendations to me. I considered the case and agreed that the FCO should approach an individual formerly connected with a British private military company, mentioned in the report of 29 January, both to attempt to test the veracity of the report, and to make clear that the FCO was firmly opposed to any unconstitutional action such as coups d'etat. A senior Foreign Office official did so within days. The individual concerned claimed no knowledge of the plans.
On 3 February we changed our travel advice to reflect our latest assessment. This reads "visitors should expect . . . isolated incidents of political unrest" in Equatorial Guinea, particularly as "legislative elections are scheduled for the first quarter of 2004".
In anticipation of these elections our ambassador in Yaounde was due to visit Malabo in early February. We instructed him to continue with his planned visit. He found the situation calm. But as a precaution, our consular crisis plan for Equatorial Guinea was reviewed. Given our limited British representation, it had not been recently updated.
We did not pass the report of 29 January to the Equatorial Guinea Government. It had been passed to us on the condition that it not be passed on to any third party. But there were two considerations of
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substance which led us to this judgement in any event. First, because there had been media reports about preparations for a possible coup which the Equatorial Guinea government would already have seen. Second, because it was not definitive enough for us to conclude that a coup was likely or inevitable. Indeed, we went back to the originating government and to another Government which had also received the report to check their belief in the veracity of the report. Their responses gave no certainty. The fact that the rumours were in the public domain suggested in any event that a successful coup was growing less likely.
There have been some suggestions in the press that the British Government were under a legal obligation to act differently. We do not condone or support unconstitutional action including coup d'etat of any kind in other countries. But my understanding is that governments are under no legal obligation to pass on information which they may receive about such possible action.
On 9 March we learned that the Zimbabwean authorities had arrested a number of individuals in Harare, alleged to be on their way to effect a coup in Equatorial Guinea. A number of individuals were also arrested in Malabo in connection with the alleged coup plot. Over the following months, the names of a number of others allegedly involved appeared in the media.
On 28 August the Foreign Office press office was asked by The Observer if the Government knew before March that a coup was going to happen. It replied, correctly, that the FCO did not. As I told the right hon. Member for Devizes on 9 November I had first heard reports of possible coup planning in late January this year. And this I followed up with a fuller account for the House in my answer to the right hon. Member's questions on 17 November.
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The Minister for Citizenship and Immigration (Des Browne): In the Government's view, applications for asylum should be made at the earliest possible opportunity after arrival in this country. Staff at ports of entry are trained to receive such claims when made by arriving passengers. There are also currently three screening units at which applications by people already in the country can be received.
Over the last 18 months, there has been a significant reduction in the number of claims. There is also a case for concentrating expertise in dealing with such cases. The asylum screening unit at Solihull currently deals with fewer than 5 per cent. of asylum applications and I have therefore decided that it should close with effect from 3 December. This change is part of the Government's continuing strategy to tighten up management of the asylum system and to take effective action against abuse of the asylum process.
Our experience in Croydon ASU has shown that by providing a more streamlined and focussed service to asylum applicants those who are genuine can be identified more quickly, whilst those whose claims have no foundation are dealt with more effectively.
Those wishing to seek asylum and already in the country will be able to do so at one of the other screening units at Croydon and Liverpool. Vulnerable applicants, such as unaccompanied children, families, pregnant women and those with medical problems will continue to be able to register their claims at immigration service locations throughout the United Kingdom.
The closure of the Solihull Asylum Screening Unit will free up staff in such a way as to make more effective the reporting arrangements for existing asylum seekers in the West Midlands. Our partners in local government and the voluntary sector have been informed of these changes.