Mr Speaker, I would like to update the House on the evacuation of British nationals from Libya, the actions we are now pursuing against Colonel Qadhafi and his administration and developments in the wider region.
Mr Speaker, we have been working intensively to get our people out. As of now we have successfully removed around 600 British nationals from Libya.
The evacuation has centred on three locations - Tripoli airport, the port at Benghazi and the desert oil fields. At Tripoli airport, a series of six aircraft organised by the Foreign Office and an RAF C130 Hercules flight have brought out more than 380 British nationals and a similar number of foreign citizens. At Benghazi, HMS Cumberland has carried out two evacuations from the port, taking out 119 British nationals and 303 foreign citizens.
The first of these evacuations took place in very difficult sea conditions. The second arrived in Malta earlier today. These evacuations were assisted on the ground by 5 rapid deployment teams, in total nearly 30 extra staff from the Foreign Office, who helped marshall British citizens in the midst of chaotic scenes in and around the airports and ports.
The most challenging part of the evacuation has of course involved those British nationals scattered across over 20 different locations in the oil fields deep in the desert. On Friday evening I authorized a military operation to bring as many as possible out of the desert. On Saturday, two RAF C130 aircraft flew into the Eastern desert and picked up 74 British nationals and 102 foreign nationals at three different locations. A second mission took place yesterday, bringing out a further 21 British nationals and 168 foreign nationals. On this second mission, one of the aircraft involved suffered minor damage from small arms fire. This underlines the challenging environment in which the aircraft were operating.
Indeed Britain has taken on a leading role in coordinating the international evacuation effort. Our AWACS aircraft are directing international aircraft involved. And Brigadier Bashall, who is commanding the operation, has established a temporary joint headquarters in Malta.
I have thanked the Maltese Prime Minister personally on behalf of the country. Not for the first time in our history Mr Speaker, we must pay tribute to Malta and her people.
In terms of numbers of British citizens remaining in Libya, this is of course difficult to ascertain precisely given the situation on the ground. Many of them will be dual nationals and not all of them will want to leave.
I asked for urgent work to be done on accurate numbers in both categories - those who wish to leave and those who currently do not. Our current indications are that, as of today, there are fewer than 150 British citizens remaining in Libya of which only a very small proportion wish to leave. Clearly this can change at any time and we will keep the House regularly updated. We will continue to do all we can to ensure that those who wish to leave can do so.
HMS Cumberland will remain in the area, together with HMS York which also stands ready off Tripoli to assist. And we have military aircraft including C130s and a 146 in Malta ready to fly in at very short notice.
Mr Speaker, the Government will continue to focus on making sure our citizens are safe. COBR has met regularly to co-ordinate the effort and I personally chaired three meetings over the weekend. The National Security Council is looking at the overall strategic picture - meeting last Friday and again today - not least to look at other risks to British citizens in the wider region.
As I said last week, there will be lessons we will wish to learn from this evacuation, including in respect of the hiring of charter aircraft, use of defence assets and the need for greater redundancy.
Mr Speaker, clearly an important decision was when to extract the Embassy. This was taken at the COBR meeting on Friday and carried out on Saturday after the remaining civilians had been extracted from Tripoli Airport in parallel with the start of desert operations, which were of course planned from Malta.
Our judgment throughout has been that the risk to British citizens has been growing and the Americans, French and Germans have similarly suspended the operations of their Embassies.
Britain also retains a Consul in Tripoli and a consular warden in Benghazi. And we have arranged that Turkey - which still has several thousand of its own citizens in Libya - will look after British interests while our Embassy’s operations remain suspended.
I’m sure the whole House will want to put on record its thanks to all those who have made the rescue effort possible to the skill of the RAF pilots and to all those involved from all three armed services, to our diplomatic service and to all those who put themselves in harm’s way to help our people leave safely.
Action to isolate the Qadhafi regime
Mr Speaker, let me turn to the pressure we are now putting on the Qadhafi regime. We should be clear. For the future of Libya and its people, Colonel Qadhafi’s regime must end and he must leave.
To that end we are taking every step possible to isolate the Qadhafi regime, deprive it of money, shrink its power and ensure that anyone responsible for abuses in Libya will be held to account.
With respect to all these actions, Britain is taking a lead. Over the weekend, we secured agreement for a UN Security Council Resolution which we had drafted and which is unusually strong, unanimous and includes all of our proposals. It condemns Qadhafi’s actions, and imposes a travel ban and assets freeze on those at the top of his murderous regime. It demands an immediate end to the violence and the killing of protesters, access for international human rights monitors, lifting of restrictions on the internet and media and an end to the intimidation and detention of journalists. And it refers Libya’s current leaders to the International Criminal Court to face the justice they deserve.
Mr Speaker, we were also the driving force behind a Special Session of the UN Human Rights Council on Friday, which started work to eject Libya from the Council. And the Foreign Secretary is in Geneva today along with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, to see this work through.
With our European partners, we have today secured agreement on freezing the assets of a wider group of individuals and banning them from entering the European Union. And also imposing a wider arms embargo on the Libyan regime.
Britain is also leading in implementing these direct measures against the regime. I can tell the House today that here in the UK a Special Privy Council session was held yesterday as a result of which we have now frozen the assets of Qadhafi, 5 of his family members, people acting for them or on their behalf, and entities that are owned or controlled by them. The Treasury has stepped in to block a shipment of some £900m in banknotes destined for Libya.
The Government has revoked Colonel Qadhafi’s immunity as a Head of State and neither he nor his family may freely enter the UK any more. And we have also revoked the visas of a number of Libyans linked to the regime who are now on immigration watch-lists.
We will look at each and every way of stepping up pressure on this regime. Further isolation of the regime by expelling it from international organisations and further use of asset freezes and travel bans to give the clearest possible message to those on the fringes of the regime that now is the time to desert it.
And we do not in any way rule out the use of military assets. We must not tolerate this regime using military force against its own people. In that context I have asked the Ministry of Defence and the Chief of the Defence Staff to work with our allies on plans for a military no-fly zone.
Mr Speaker, it is clear that this is an illegitimate regime that has lost the consent of its people. My message to Colonel Qadhafi is simple: Go now.
Mr Speaker, everyone hopes this situation will be resolved quickly but there is a real danger now of a humanitarian crisis inside Libya.
We are acutely conscious of the risks of shortages and are monitoring the situation closely. We have dispatched technical teams to be in place at both the Tunisian and Egyptian borders. Currently the most pressing need is assisting the large numbers of migrant workers into Egypt and Tunisia to get home.
Tomorrow, in response to a request from the UN, Britain will fly in tents and blankets from our stocks in Dubai for use at the Tunisian border.
The International Development Secretary will be visiting the region later this week to assess the situation on the ground for himself.
Mr Speaker, North Africa and the wider Middle East are now at the epicentre of momentous events. History is sweeping through this region.
Yes, we must deal with the immediate consequences, especially for British citizens caught up in these developments. But we must also be clear about what these developments mean and how Britain and the West in general should respond.
In many parts of the Arab world, hopes and aspirations which have been smothered for decades are stirring. People, especially young people, are seeking their rights, and in the vast majority of cases they are doing so peacefully and bravely.
The parallels with what happened in Europe in 1989 are not, of course, precise. But there is no doubt that many of those who are demanding change in the wider Middle East can take inspiration from other peaceful movements for change, including the Velvet Revolutions in Central and Eastern Europe or the peaceful transition to democracy in Muslim countries like Indonesia.
Of course there have been many disappointments in the past. But those of us who believe in democracy and open societies should be clear: this is a precious moment of opportunity.
While it is not for us to dictate how each country should meet the aspirations of its people, we must not remain silent in our belief that freedom and the rule of law are what best guarantee human progress and economic success. Freedom of expression, a free press, freedom of assembly, the right to demonstrate peacefully: these are basic rights. And they are as much the rights of people in Tahrir Square as Trafalgar Square. They are not British or western values - but the values of human beings everywhere.
So we need to take this opportunity to look again at our entire relationship with this region - at the billions of Euros of EU funds, at our trade relationship, at our cultural ties. We need to be much clearer and tougher in linking our development assistance to real progress in promoting more open and plural societies. And we need to dispense once and for all with the outdated notion that democracy has no place in the Arab world.
Too often in the past, we have made a false choice between so-called stability on the one hand and reform and openness on the other. As recent events have confirmed, denying people their basic rights does not preserve stability, rather the reverse.
We should be clear too that now is not the time to park the Middle East peace process - quite the opposite. This is a problem that is long overdue for resolution, and we should use developments in the region to drive forward progress, not hold it up.
In short, reform, not repression, is the way to lasting stability. No one pretends that democracy and open societies can be built overnight.
Democracy is the work of patient craftsmanship - and it takes time, as we know from our own history, to put its building blocks in place.
What is happening in the wider Middle East is one of those once in a generation opportunities, a moment when history turns a page. That next page is not yet written. It falls to all of us to seize this chance to fashion a better future for this region, to build a better relationship between our peoples, to make a new start.
As the inspiring Opposition leaders I met in Tahrir Square said to me last week: We now have the opportunity of achieving freedoms that you in Britain take for granted. I am determined that Britain will not let them down. And I commend this statement to the House.