Britain and Mauritius in diplomatic stand-off over Diego Garcia

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The Independent Online

A diplomatic row that prompted Mauritius to threaten to withdraw from the Commonwealth deepened yesterday after Britain barred the country from going to court to seek the return of a strategic Indian Ocean archipelago.

A diplomatic row that prompted Mauritius to threaten to withdraw from the Commonwealth deepened yesterday after Britain barred the country from going to court to seek the return of a strategic Indian Ocean archipelago.

Bill Rammell, the Foreign Office minister, advised parliament that the Government was extending a rule, which prevents Commonwealth countries from suing Britain through the international court of justice, to cover even former Commonwealth members.

Mauritius has been threatening to leave the Commonwealth so that it can press its longstanding claim to the Chagos islands. The archipelago includes Diego Garcia, where the United States has strategic military bases. "Though these changes are of general application, their immediate significance is that they prevent any Commonwealth country from circumventing the present limitations by withdrawing from the Commonwealth and then instituting proceedings against the United Kingdom in respect of an existing dispute," Mr Rammell said.

Diplomats said the Government's latest action was unlikely to be helpful. The Mauritian Prime Minister, Paul Berenger, will be in London tomorrow for talks with the Commonwealth secretary general, Don McKinnon, on how to resolve the stand-off with Britain.

Mr Rammell yesterday strongly defended a controversial order which had barred islanders from returning to the Indian Ocean archipelago, saying it was dictated by financial and legal considerations. The government decision overturned a High Court ruling which said the islanders' eviction was illegal.

Mr Rammell pointed out that the 1,500 residents of the Chagos islands had been paid the equivalent of £14.5m after their evacuation when Britain separated the islands from the rest of Mauritius in 1965, just before independence.

In a separate interview with The Independent, he added: "There are huge financial and legal liabilities that - to be blunt - we would be wholly irresponsible to not take account of when we're making decisions."

Mr Rammell, and Joel Kibazo, a Commonwealth spokesman, said neither side wanted Mauritius to leave the Commonwealth. But there seems little room for compromise. Diplomats said that Britain's "arrogant" handling of the issue had served only to poison the atmosphere.

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