Exiled islanders set for emotional return to their homeland

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A group of Indian Ocean islanders expelled by Britain 40 years ago to make way for a US military base on Diego Garcia will set sail on an emotional journey to their homeland today for what they hope will be the first step towards their permanent resettlement.

After years of stalling, Britain has allowed 100 former residents of the Chagos archipelago to visit outlying parts of the 65-island British colony on a strictly "humanitarian" trip. Diego Garcia is the main island.

The exiles have been fighting through the courts to return to their home since 1966 when 2,000 Chagossians were evacuated and deposited in Mauritius to make room for the American base under a US-British agreement. The exiled community of Chagossians, now concentrated on Mauritius and in Britain, has become up to 5,000 strong.

"I have dreamed of being able to visit my native land for 38 years now. We are all very excited. Our island community has been shattered by its expulsion from our homeland," said Olivier Bancoult, who leads the Mauritius-based community of Chagossians that has lobbied for the trip.

He said the islanders expected to tend to their ancestors' graves and visit the ruins of their abandoned communities. They will make one-day stops on three of the remoter islands next week - without spending a single night on land - after sailing the 1,200 miles from Mauritius.

The historic voyage, which is the first such gesture by a British government after years of negotiations, is costing £400,000. Compensation of £14.5m has also been paid out either directly to the Chagossians or to Mauritian authorities, according to the Government.

However, despite a decision by the High Court in 2000 declaring the evacuation unlawful, Westminster has fought strongly to prevent the permanent resettlement of islanders and their descendants.

Since 2000, the Government has invoked colonial powers to overrule the court's decision, and argues that a 2002 feasibility study concluded that permanent resettlement would be "precarious" and "expensive". The islanders have challenged the government decision and the High Court is expected to rule on the matter in the coming weeks.

If the court ruling again goes in favour of the islanders, it is suspected that the Government will appeal, further lengthening the process and the islanders' quest for justice.

Many of the 100 islanders on the trip, who are now middle-aged or elderly, are well aware that this trip will probably be their last opportunity to walk on the soil of their homeland.

Ilana Rapaport, a spokesperson for Minority Rights Group International which has campaigned on behalf of the islanders, said: "Their removal and the persistent excuses and legal wrangling the UK Government have undertaken to deny the islanders their land rights is shocking."

"The Government have failed to explain why the Chagossians and the US military cannot coexist on the islands. The rights of the Chagossians, themselves British subjects, still seem to be well below the Government's agenda of satisfying US foreign policy needs."

Earlier attempts by the islanders to return to what is also known officially as British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) were blocked on the ground that they would threaten US security. Other reasons cited to delay visits have ranged from mosquito infestations to poor weather.

The issue of Diego Garcia is sensitive. The island was not part of the Government's feasability study which looked into possible resettlement of outer islands only. The US military has used the island base as a hub for the "war on terror" and is reported to have taken "high value" suspects there for interrogation.

The situation is complicated by a territorial claim lodged by Mauritius, also a former British colony, over the islands, which the Government rejects. The islands have been a dependency of Britain since 1814, when they were ceded from France. The Chagossians arrived in the late 19th century to set up copra plantations.

Ms Rapaport said: "If the High Court supports the Chagossians a second time, then this visit ought to be the start of a long-awaited resettlement."