Landmines being stored by US in British waters

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The Independent Online

Ministers could face court action after admitting that they have allowed the Americans to store banned landmines on ships off Diego Garcia, partof the British Indian Ocean Territory.

That breaches the British Government's pledge to ban landmines, campaigners say. But the Foreign Office minister Keith Vaz has told the Labour MP Tam Dalyell that the ships are outside his jurisdiction even though they are in United Kingdom territorial waters.

Under the United Nations convention which banned landmines, Britain promised to destroy all stockpiled anti-personnel mines under its jurisdiction or control. It also promised "never under any circumstances" to assist anyone to own or use such a weapon.

The UK Working Group on Landmines, a coalition of 55 charities concerned with the issue, plans to consult international lawyers. Richard Lloyd, director of the working group, said the landmine ban - enforced by Britain but not by the United States - barred storage of the weapons on UK territory.

"This is a breach of the spirit if not the letter of the treaty and it should not be permitted," Mr Lloyd said. "We will be consulting legal specialists here and in America."

When George Robertson, then defence secretary, reported to the UN last year on Britain's progress in implementing the Ottawa Convention on landmines, he made no mention of the use of Diego Garcia for weapons storage.

Frank Cook, chairman of the Parliamentary Landmines Group, said the issue had been raised at one of its meetings last week. He said he would look into the issue further. "I would have thought that if they are in our territorial waters they are within our jurisdiction," Mr Cook said. "We are going to have to get some kind of definitive legal assessment."

Mr Lloyd said that other signatories to the ban had also allowed the Americans to store anti-personnel mines in their territory, and joint action might be taken with like-minded campaigners overseas.

Diego Garcia was handed to the Americans in 1966 for use as an air base, but it remains under UK sovereignty. During the Gulf war, it was used as a base for the bombing of Iraq.

The UK-US agreement on the island has long been controversial, not least because it led to the exile of its Ilois people to Mauritius.

In a written answer to Mr Dalyell, the MP for Linlithgow, Mr Vaz said that the US vessels enjoyed state immunity and were outside the UK's control. "The US understands the importance we attach to their adherence to the Ottawa Convention as soon as possible," Mr Dalyell wrote.