PORT-LOUIS — Mauritius' premier said Thursday he was appalled by Britain's plans for a marine reserve around Chagos, an archipelago London forcibly evacuated to build a military base four decades ago.
"Mauritius is appalled by the British government's decision to press on with consultations for the creation of a protected marine park project around the Chagos archipelago," Mauritian Prime Minister Navin Chandra Ramgoolam said.
The Indian Ocean state's premier was speaking at an event inaugurating a building for the Chagos Refugees Group in the capital Port-Louis.
"It is unacceptable that the British claim to protect marine fauna and flora when they insist on denying Chagos-born Mauritians the right to return to their islands all the while," Ramgoolam said.
"How can you say you will protect coral and fish when you continue to violate the rights of Chagos' former inhabitants?" he went on.
The Chagos archipelago, also known as the British Indian Ocean Territory, is a tiny group of islands east of the Seychelles and north of Mauritius' main island.
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.
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, the main island in the Chagos archipelago, 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 against Iraq.
"The British had refused to create a base on Aldabra in the Seychelles not to harm its tortoise population," marvelled Olivier Bancoult, who heads the Chagos Refugees Group.
"Now they are trying to create a protected area to prevent Chagossians from returning to their native islands," he charged.
Britain had initially offered up its then Seychelles colony's Aldabra archipelago for the United States to build its Indian Ocean military base.
Environmentalist groups at home raised a scandal because the Aldabra atoll, now a world heritage site, was home to hundreds of thousands of giant land tortoises.
The next option was Diego Garcia in the Chagos islands further east. Aldabra was uninhabited but the tortoises won the day.
Greenpeace said last month that it supports the creation of the marine reserve, which would be the largest in the world, but also stressed that it wanted to see justice for the Chagossians and was fundamentally opposed to the existence of the military base.