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Thursday, 24 August, 2000, 15:04 GMT 16:04 UK
Hope for Indian Ocean islanders
Map of the Chagos Archipelago
The Chagos islanders can return to two outlying atolls
By Diplomatic Correspondent Barnaby Mason

Indian Ocean islanders have been given new hope that they may be allowed to resettle two small islands, 30 years after they left.

At least 1,000 islanders were removed from their homes in the Chagos archipelago by Britain to make way for US military facilities on Diego Garcia, south of the Maldives.

But details have emerged of an independent report commissioned by the UK Foreign Office which says the resettlement of two outlying atolls - Salomons and Peros Banhos - is possible.

The report is now in the hands of a High Court judge, who is due to rule later this year on whether the islanders have the right to return home.

At the time, most of them were resettled in Mauritius and the Seychelles.

Conditions attached

The Foreign Office gave the report to the judge hearing the case in July and quietly put a copy into the parliamentary library, but drew no attention to it.

Inhabitants of Chagos
Hundreds of islanders were forced to leave in the 1960s
A group of consultants - among them experts in fisheries and water resources - concluded that the resettlement of the atolls of Salomons and Peros Banhos was physically possible, but only if a number of conditions were met.

They included confirmation that a sustainable and affordable supply of fresh water was available - further research was needed to establish that.

The report also said the UK would have to provide public money to finance infrastructure and basic services, and private investment would be needed to develop ways for the islanders to earn a living.

There was some potential for low-level tourism, it said, but the most promising idea was a commercial fishery, which in the right circumstances could provide direct employment for up to 60 fishermen.

Awkward legacy

The Foreign Office does not dispute the findings of the report, and has not attempted to defend the decisions taken by Harold Wilson's Labour government in the late 1960s.

Louis Bancoult
Louis Bancoult is leading the campaign for the islanders' return
The present foreign secretary, Robin Cook, was vociferous at the time in opposing the removal of the islanders to allow the United States to develop Diego Garcia as an air and naval base.

But British officials say they want to get away from the rights and wrongs of what was done then: they have to deal with the situation as it is now.

That situation is awkward to say the least: a treaty gave the United States a lease on the territory for at least 50 years, and the US says allowing people to settle even on outlying islands would be a security risk.

The judge has been asked to rule on whether the islanders were lawfully removed in 1971, and therefore on whether they have the right to return.

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