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Iraq

Harry Cohen: To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what the planned outcomes were of the Minister of State's recent visit to Iraq; who he met during the visit; what was discussed at the meetings; and if he will make a statement. [61771]

Dr. Howells: I visited Basra on 9–11 March. During the visit I met the Governor, the Chairman of the Council, the Chief Justice, the Director General of the South Oil Company and the Chief of Police, as well as senior religious and tribal figures from the local Shia, Sunni and Christian communities. This visit worked in support of efforts to end the council's boycott of co-operation with British forces and highlighted British reconstruction efforts in the region.

Iran

Peter Luff: To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what assessment he has made of (a) the statement from the UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion and belief on the activities of the command headquarters of the armed forces in Iran and (b) the letter from its chairman dated 29 October 2005 addressed to the Ministry of Information, the Revolutionary Guard and the police force. [61883]

Dr. Howells: The UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion and belief, Asma Jahangir, said in a statement on 20 March that a confidential letter from the chairman of the command headquarters of the
 
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Iranian armed forces had been brought to her attention. According to Ms Jahangir, the letter says that Iran's Supreme Leader has instructed the command headquarters to identify persons who adhere to the Baha'i faith and to monitor their activities. In the letter the command headquarters reportedly requests that the Ministry of Intelligence, the revolutionary guard and the police force collect any and all information about members of the Baha'i faith.

We share Ms Jahangir's concern at this letter, and hope that the Iranian authorities will clarify their policy towards the Baha'i community as a matter of urgency. There can be no justification for the Iranian authorities to monitor individuals simply because they adhere to a particular religion. The alleged letter adds to the evidence that discrimination against the Baha'i community in Iran is increasing. Reports suggest that Baha'is have been subjected to harassment, intimidation and arbitrary arrest and a hostile campaign in the media. Iran's Chambers of Commerce have also reportedly been ordered to create lists of all Baha'i businesses. In December 2005, a Baha'i, Mr. Dhaibullah Mahrami died in custody in unclear circumstances.

Ministers and officials have pressed the Iranian authorities on many occasions to address the discrimination suffered by the Baha'i community. We expect Iran to uphold freedom of religion and belief in accordance with its international obligations under Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Middle East

Mr. Soames: To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what he assesses to be the British national interest in the Middle East. [61768]

Dr. Howells [holding answer 28 March 2006]: On 28 March, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary launched Active Diplomacy for a Changing World", the Foreign and Commonwealth Office's new White Paper which sets out nine priorities for the UK internationally, including for the Middle East. Details are available on our website www.fco.gov.uk.

Ministerial Committee on EU Strategy

Norman Baker: To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs on what date the Ministerial Committee on EU Strategy was established. [60897]

Mr. Jim Murphy: I have been asked to reply.

The European Union Strategy Committee was established in June 2003. A full list of all Cabinet Committees, including their membership and terms of reference, can be found in the Library and on the Cabinet Office website at www.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/secretariats/committees/

Mujahedin-e Khalq

Patrick Mercer: To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what estimate he has made of the number of members of the Mujahedin-e Khalq Organisation that have been given protected person status under the Geneva Convention at Camp Ashraf in Iraq. [61662]


 
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Dr. Howells: The status of 'protected persons' applies to persons meeting the relevant conditions set out in that Convention (article 4). The provisions of the fourth Geneva Convention apply to situations of international armed conflict. The armed conflict between Iraq and the Multi-National Forces has ended. We have therefore made no assessment of protected person status in Camp Ashraf.

Nepal

Mr. Clifton-Brown: To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what recent assessment he has made of the number of Maoist insurgents in Nepal. [62161]

Dr. Howells: The nature of Maoists' clandestine organisation and operations makes it very difficult to assess how many insurgents there are in Nepal. A very approximate estimate, drawn from a number of sources, including open source material, would suggest that the core cadre of active armed insurgents is about 8,000–12,000 strong. However, we estimate that there may be up to 20,000 or 30,000 other activists who may not be armed but will be heavily involved, for instance in detonating small bombs, organising logistics, carrying out extortion. In addition to this, there are probably thousands more political supporters and sympathisers.

Palestine (H5N1)

Keith Vaz: To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what multilateral action he is participating in to ensure that political conflict in Palestine will not hinder effective containment and eradication of the H5N1 virus; and if he will make a statement. [61869]

Dr. Howells: On 26 March, the Israeli government announced that it had culled 1.2 million birds in an effort to stop the spread of the virus. The Israeli government has said that it will work with the Palestinians to tackle the problem. It has sent preventative medicines and information on the treatment of bird flu to the Palestinians. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has set up a Ministerial committee to help with the culling of birds in the Gaza Strip and to identify farmers that will need compensation. The World Bank are funding US $2 million of compensation for farmers, to be dispersed as soon as possible. Both the Palestinians and the Israelis are putting in place measures to contain the virus. We are not participating in any multilateral action to ensure that the conflict will not hinder its containment as every effort is being made by both sides to ensure the virus does not spread. Our Embassy in Tel Aviv and our Consulate General in Jerusalem will continue to monitor the situation closely.

Russia (Energy Supplies)

Mr. Clifton-Brown: To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what discussions he has had with the International Energy Agency on Russian energy supplies. [62138]


 
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Mr. Douglas Alexander: Officials from both the Department for Trade and Industry and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office have had discussions on Russian energy supplies in the course of normal International Energy Agency (IEA) committee meetings, specifically the Non Member Country Committee (NMCC). The most recent NMCC meeting to discuss Eurasian gas was on 8–9 March 2006.

Russian energy has also been discussed at the IEA governing board. The governing board met last week, 20–24 March 2006, although Russian energy supplies were not on the agenda for the meeting.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what representations he has received concerning Russian oil and gas supplies to the EU. [62139]

Mr. Douglas Alexander: My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, myself and officials continue to receive such representations as part of our ongoing discussions with key stakeholders in energy policy, particularly in the G8 and EU contexts.

The European Council on 23–24 March discussed energy security. The Presidency's conclusions note the importance of making the EU-Russia dialogue more effective, identifying as an important aim the ratification of the Energy Charter and the conclusion of its Transit Protocol.

Dialogue with Russia on energy supplies is an important element of current discussions on global energy security. The most recent discussions on this were led by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry at the G8 Energy Ministerial Meeting on 15–16 March.


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