2009-12-08

Mauritius urges UK to freeze Chagos marine parc project

AFP

PORT-LOUIS — Mauritius has officially asked London to freeze a project to turn the Chagos archipelago, also known as the British Indian Ocean Territory, into a marine reserve, the premier said Saturday.

Mauritian Prime Minister Navin Chandra Ramgoolam told reporters here upon his return from the Commonwealth summit in Trinidad and Tobago that he voiced his reservations unequivocally.

Between 1967 and 1971, the inhabitants of the Chagos Archipelago, then a British colonial dependency, were expelled so that the largest island, Diego Garcia, could host a joint US-British military base.

Some 2,000 people were forcibly moved to Mauritius, which still claims the island and has regularly filed to that purpose with the United Nations. Most of the refugees are still campaigning to go back.

"During a meeting with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, I made it clear to him that discussions on a protected marine parc around the Chagos ignoring exiled Chagossians' right of return and Mauritius' sovereign right over the archipelago are out of the question," Ramgoolam said.

"The British prime minister understood our point of view," he added.

Last month, British Foreign Secretary David Milliband announced three measures aimed at enhancing environmental protection of the world's oceans, including a project for the Chagos to become a marine reserve.

"In their near pristine state, the islands remain a vital habitat to many forms of marine life as well as an important research site for marine biologists who are working to combat global climate change," a statement said.

"This is a remarkable opportunity for Britain to create one of the world's largest marine protected areas, and to double the global coverage of the world's oceans that benefit from full protection," Milliband said.

The British government has paid compensation to the Chagossians.

The islanders have won several cases on their right of return in UK courts but a 2008 split judgment by the House of Lords ruled against it.

Diego Garcia is now populated by an estimated 1,700 US military personnel, 1,500 civilian contractors and a mere 50 British troops. The base played a key role in the 1991 Operation Desert Storm operation against Iraq.

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