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Last Updated: Monday, 3 November, 2003, 07:48 GMT
Inuit battle to shut US air base
The BBC's Malcolm Brabant
By Malcolm Brabant
BBC correspondent in Copenhagen

Denmark's Supreme Court will be asked this week to close down one of America's most secretive and strategically important military bases, to enable a group of Inuits to return to their traditional hunting grounds.

A facility at Thule air base
The Inuit say their livelihood is at stake

The case is a classic David and Goliath trial of strength between George Bush's superpower and the smallest indigenous people on earth.

Lawyers representing the Inuit claim their survival is at stake.

"I think its in the world's interest that this last surviving group of polar Eskimos cannot be allowed to disappear and perish, says lead attorney Christian Harlang.

Clad in white sealskin boots and white fur trousers, fashioned from a polar bear he tracked and killed, Nussaqak Qujaukitsoq, a 56 year old hunter, cut an incongruous figure on Copenhagen's fashionable streets.

He flew in from Greenland for the five day long hearing, which begins on Monday November 3rd.

"I promised my father on his death bed, that I would pursue this fight all the way...until we can return to our land. I won't stop until I have fulfilled my vow, he declared.

Mr Qujaukitsoq was a toddler when he and other Inuit families were forcibly evicted from their ancestral lands in Northern Greenland by the ruling Danish authorities.

They were exiled 100 miles away to enable the United States to establish what is now the Thule airbase.

During the Cold War, Thule's location on top of the world and its proximity to the former Soviet Union enabled the US to monitor the military activities of its rival superpower and, most importantly, to give early warning of any possible first nuclear strike.

Since the 1950's Thule has evolved into America's ear on the northern hemisphere and has surveillance technology similar to that contained in the mysterious white globes at RAF Fylingdales in North Yorkshire.

Right of return

Washington is planning to upgrade the radar and is also seeking Danish permission to use the base as a part of the putative 'Star Wars' National Missile Defence System.

The Americans will not be represented in court as this dispute is strictly between the Inuit and the Danish government.

A spokesman for the US Embassy in Copenhagen said, "We are keeping a close eye on the case."

US diplomats will be hoping that the Supreme Court's decision, expected on November 28th, mirrors an earlier ruling by Denmark's Eastern High Court.

Four years ago, its justices determined that the Inuit had been illegally exiled against their will.

Which nation ever managed to close down a US base?
Aqqaluk Lynge, Greenland MP

But, critically, the judges ruled that the hunters had no right of return.

This element of their judgement is being appealed in the Supreme Court.

Mr Harlang will tell the bench that Thule's perimeters contain the only fertile hunting territory with sufficient whales, fish and other arctic creatures capable of sustaining the Inuit in the manner in which they have lived for thousands of years.

"Their current home to which they were exiled in 1953 cannot support them as before, says Aqqaluk Lynge, a member of the Greenland 'Parliament' and President of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference.

Environmental damage

In his book, 'Right of Return', Mr Lynge writes : "The numbers of animals within reasonable hunting distances are simply insufficient.

"If the Court rules against their desire, their need and right to return to the land which can sustain them, the Inuit will, in all likelihood, join other indigenous peoples globally whose language, culture and presence are no longer with us."

The Greenlanders, who have limited autonomy under Danish rule, are seeking greater sovereignty and involvement in discussions over America's presence in their land.

While they dream of kicking out the US military completely, the best they can hope for is compromise.

Greenland flag
The pro-independence party may move back into government

'Which nation ever managed to close down a US base?" shrugs Mr Lynge, during an interview with The Times.

"But the Americans have to learn that you don't kick people out of their homes, even in Greenland. You don't deprive people of their livelihood.

"We have to send a message through the Supreme Court, that the Americans must respect our human rights."

Denmark's Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen has been one of the strongest supporters of President Bush's military adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq.

If the government loses the case, it may have to decide whether to expropriate the land to enable the American presence to continue.

"We keep hearing that America and Denmark have democracy. But they don't apply it to us small people. All they do is dictate, concludes Mr Qujaukitsoq.

Its not certain what long term environmental damage Thule has done to the Inuit's hunting grounds.

In 1968 a B-52 bomber, carrying nuclear weapons, crashed into the sea, leaking plutonium into Greenland's waters.

Ironically, the Americans had to ask the Inuit hunters for help in their search and rescue efforts, because they were the only ones who knew the territory intimately and who could find their way in the bad weather.

Country profile: Greenland
30 May 02  |  Country profiles

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