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Istanbul: Terrorist Attack

2.45 p.m.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean): My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now make a Statement which is being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary. The Statement is as follows:

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My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

2.50 p.m.

Lord Howell of Guildford: My Lords, the House will be as grateful as I am to the noble Baroness for repeating the Statement on this ugly tragedy, the details and size of which are still not fully apparent and are unfolding as we speak. We of course join wholeheartedly and totally in the condolences and sympathies to the relatives of the bereaved and the hundreds who have been injured. We realise that there may be more bad news yet to come and that it is difficult at this early stage to confirm the details. We pray and hope that our consulate staff and nationals—and, indeed, all those involved—were spared as much injury as possible and that the news is not quite as bad as some of the early Reuters reports and others have suggested. But that may be wishing in the wind because this was clearly a horrific event involving targets with a British connection, most obviously the consulate and the HSBC bank.

Turkey is a strong and valued ally of ours in NATO. We admire Turkey and the way in which the Turkish people and society are seeking to bring themselves fully into the modern world and to prepare for membership of the European Union—which I, for one, would like to see as soon as possible—and thus help bring about the emergence of the grand union of the future. I hope that we can indicate the warmth of that support in this hour of tragedy for the people of Turkey and the people of Istanbul.

There are one or two questions that I should put to the Minister about the situation as it unfolds. Was there any pre-warning at all after the synagogue horrors on Saturday? Is there any solid news that Istanbul will be particularly targeted, or is it an emerging pattern that encompasses Saudi Arabia and other Muslim countries? Were extra precautions taken at the British consulate, which, as many noble Lords will know better than I, is a magnificent building? It was originally our embassy, given to Queen Victoria by the Sultan, and is even now being refurbished.

Has this horror led instantaneously to warnings to all our embassies and consulates around the world? They are all in the front line now. Indeed, there are some who say that these attacks on Istanbul, the bridge into Europe, are a message and a warning that the Al'Qaeda brigade, or a franchise, or those acting in related terrorist groups, are trying to move back into

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the European landmass. Clearly we have more than ever to be on our guard, totally and absolutely, against these evil people.

I agree with the noble Baroness and the Foreign Secretary about the broader scene. There can be with these terrorists—and one defines "terrorists" as those who deliberately target civilians, women and children; not those who fight wars for freedom but those who deliberately set out to kill the innocent—no appeasement and no negotiation.

Finally, I observe that this is a sad note on which to end this parliamentary Session. But it is a reminder that this is an age of terrorism. I believe I am right in saying that we began this Parliament with debates on the same subject. It will clearly be a long, hard haul and we will need the steeliest of resolve to see us through these dark times.

2.54 p.m.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement from the Commons. We all appreciate that it is not helpful at this time to ask for further details from the Government when information is still coming through. We extend our condolences to the families of the members of the consulate staff who have clearly lost their lives and to the families of many others who have been killed and injured in the middle of Istanbul.

I was in Istanbul four weeks ago. I walked around that area and I had dinner with a number of members of the Istanbul Jewish community. I am very conscious that this brings us quite close to home. It is a part of our world.

The Turkish Government represent the moderate face of Islam. It is one of the best developments that Turkey has seen for many years. Clearly there are those within Turkey who do not wish the Government to succeed. That is part of the attack. It is not only an attack on us and the Turkish Jewish community, it is an attack on the reconciliation of Islam with democracy that the AKP happily appears to represent. This has to be the future development of Turkey. We must do everything that we can to help the Turkish Government resist this counter movement.

I make one small criticism of the Statement. Whatever one may say about suicide bombers, they are not cowardly. They take their own lives and those of others because they have a very deep but mistaken faith in resisting the world in which we want to live. We must understand the nature of what is now a clear, long-term threat to our open secular society in those terms. We have discontented youths—often discontented middle-class youths—across the Muslim world from Singapore to Sheffield, who feel that they have a calling to go out and commit these dreadful atrocities at the cost of their own lives. There has to be a broad and long-term response to what we must now recognise is a long-term threat.

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We have to be tough on terrorism but also tough on the causes of terrorism. That means that we have to consider not only Western policy across the whole of the Middle East and Western policy towards education in the third world, particularly in the Muslim world, but also about better relations with our own British Muslim community. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Howell—no appeasement, no negotiation—but we also need to have a clear understanding of what mistakenly motivates these young men. We need to consider how we can remove those causes and find a bridge towards helping them to come to terms with our world.

2.57 p.m.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, and the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, for their responses. I thank them also for their expressions of condolence.

The Statement made clear that the position is changing all the time in terms of the news we have available. I thank both noble Lords for their commendable restraint in not pressing me too hard at the moment on matters that I cannot answer in detail or with any certainty because news is still coming in.

It is clear that diplomats and locally engaged staff—and we should not forget how faithfully we are served overseas by people who are locally engaged and have worked for many years in our consulates-general, consulates, embassies and high commissions—employees of HSBC, Turkish citizens and others may have lost their lives or been hurt in this morning's explosions. We are doing everything that we can to get a clear picture.

The Statement made clear that my right honourable friend had spoken to Her Majesty's ambassador in Ankara, Sir Peter Westmacott, this morning. I have spoken to Sir Peter since that conversation. He had not then arrived at the consulate-general in Istanbul but was preparing himself for a very difficult situation on the ground when he gets there. I can think of no diplomat able to deal with such a situation better than Sir Peter.

I also thank both noble Lords for what they said about the attack being an attack on Turkey, too, as the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, made clear. The noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, quite rightly drew our attention to the fact that Turkey joining the EU and the Turkish accession is something to which we very much look forward. We believe that as well as being an attack on British interests, this was an attack on Turkey. My right honourable friend made that clear in his discussions with his opposite number, Minister Gul, this morning.

The noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, asked specifically about warnings. There have been general warnings to our interests in Turkey. The travel advice was changed earlier this week as a result of the bombings of the synagogues, referred to in my right honourable friend's Statement. The travel advice at the time of the explosion made it clear that there was

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a significant threat from terrorism. A number of recent terrorist incidents, including the major attacks in Istanbul on the 15th November, urged us to say to those travelling that they should be vigilant in all parts of the country, especially in the vicinity of potential terrorist targets. Among the examples referred to was the possibility of attacks on United Kingdom or United States diplomatic missions.

I believe the travel advice warned of significant threats from terrorism and pointed specifically at United Kingdom and United States diplomatic missions. Of course, the advice has changed this morning in the light of these further attacks—it advises against all but the most essential travel to Istanbul. As your Lordships will know, the travel advice is kept under constant review. The Foreign Secretary takes a very close interest and the travel advice is often referred to him from various parts of the world where we believe there is a high threat.

The noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, also asked about extra precautions. Extra precautions were taken; I am not prepared to go into details about what they were, but there is still a very difficult security position on the ground. The bombs were on a vehicle; I do not know what the vehicle was, and I am not aware of the extent of the damage. Those of your Lordships who have been to the consulate-general in Istanbul, as I have, will know that there is a perimeter wall. If that wall has been breached in any way, going into details about the security within the wall would be a mistake at the moment.

As you would expect, after the synagogue bombings there was liaison with the Turkish authorities and additional precautions were taken. I agree with what has been said about the beautiful building that has been so sadly defaced today.

As for warnings to other embassies, there is of course a very high level of threat to British interests in many parts of the world at the moment. Our Foreign Office travel advice, as I have indicated to your Lordships, is reviewed constantly. So, too, are aspects of security for our staff when they serve overseas. I see reports about the judgments drawn by those from a number of different agencies who visit our embassies, high commissions and consulates in different parts of the world and make recommendations about any additional security that is necessary. I am afraid, as has been demonstrated all too well today, that these are very difficult times for many of our staff overseas. We are absolutely aware of our responsibility to do what we can for the safety of the staff, both diplomats and locally engaged staff.

Of course I agree that terrorism has to be fought; I agree that this will be a long haul and that steely resolve will be necessary. The noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, made various observations on the nature of cowardice which we may want to debate on another occasion, as we have debated the nature of terrorism. What we can say, however, is that this was a wicked act, carried out with an absolutely indiscriminate desire to kill as many people as possible and hurt as many people as possible.

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Much as we have to look at some of the causes of terrorism around the world, as I know the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, would be the first to agree, that should in no way diminish our resolve to fight these appalling acts of terrorism and do everything we can to counter them.

3.4 p.m.

Lord Wright of Richmond: My Lords, I would like to associate myself fully with the unanimous shock and horror in this House at this appalling act of indiscriminate violence. It has been a sad week for violence and terrorist activities against both coalition and Jewish targets. I totally support what the Minister has said about our need for continuing resolve in opposing, fighting and, if I may say so, understanding these acts of violence.

This has also been a week in which there has been striking evidence of public opposition in this country to United States policy in the Middle East and on Iraq. I pay tribute to what I have read of President Bush's reported remarks about the Arab-Israel dispute this week. But these have been remarks, and I hope the Minister will agree that the only way in which we can reduce opposition to United States policy in this country and, more importantly, reduce these appalling continuing acts of violence is if the United States Administration are prepared to put those remarks into action.

President Bush gave Mr Blair some very firm promises in Belfast that he would put as much personal energy into trying to resolve the Arab-Israel problem as Mr Blair had put into helping to resolve the Northern Ireland problem. It is time that the United States lived up to that promise. Most of us know that even the middle-ranking delegate who was sent to Palestine and Israel on behalf of the United States Administration was withdrawn. As far as I know, there is no evidence whatever that the United States is doing anything practical at the moment to help resolve that disastrous issue which lies at the bottom of much of the resentment of not only those who demonstrated in London this week but, more importantly, the Muslim world.

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