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Mauritius sends ship to presss claim to Chagos Islands, calls UK 'illegal colonial occupier'

US Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) (L) talks with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) during a rally with fellow Democrats before voting on H.R. 1, or the People Act, on the East Steps of the US Capitol on March 08, 2019 in Washington, DC. (AFP photo)
A US officer uses a land mobile radio as he watches a B-1B Lancer land in support of a Bomber Task Force mission at Naval Support Facility Diego Garcia Oct. 17, 2021. Diago Garcia is the largest of 60 small islands comprising the Chagos Archipelago which the US military has used for bombings in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The island nation of Mauritius is sending a survey ship to the Chagos Islands to press the country’s claim for the strategically important Indian Ocean archipelago, which is occupied by Britain and is home to an American military base.

Mauritian Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth said in a statement that the research vessel, Bleu de Nimes, was set to sail Tuesday from Seychelles to the remote archipelago, about 500 kilometers (310 miles) south of Maldives in the Indian Ocean.

This will be “a historic visit” because it is the first time Mauritius has embarked upon an expedition to the islands without seeking the permission of the UK, he said, adding that it is a “concrete step” in “exercising its sovereignty and sovereign rights in relation to the Chagos Archipelago.”

The ship is carrying the Mauritian permanent representative to the United Nations, along with scientists and a group of Chagos islanders who were forcibly evicted by Britain half a century ago to make way for a US military base there, he added.

Jugnauth said he would not accompany others on the current voyage, but would personally visit the islands in a separate voyage.

The latest development follows a 2019 International Court of Justice ruling that backed the claim by Mauritius and said Britain should give up control of the islands.

Thus far, Britain has refused to abide by the non-binding decisions. It has argued that the Chagos archipelago has been under its control since 1814 and that its continued presence there is strategically important.

In his statement, Jugnauth pointed to the ICJ ruling and said that “continued administration of the Chagos archipelago by the United Kingdom constituted a wrongful act.”

Mauritius, which was a British colony until 1968, claims it was forced to trade the Chagos Islands in exchange for independence. The UK officially refers to the archipelago as the British Indian Ocean Territory.

Between 1968 and 1974, the UK forcibly evicted thousands of Chagossians from their homeland and exiled them to Mauritius and the Seychelles, where they faced extreme poverty and discrimination. The UK even handed one of the islands – Diego Garcia – over to the US, which then fully militarized it by developing a base there.

Over the decades, Diego Garcia has been repeatedly used by the UK and US to conduct long-range bombing operations, notably in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Back in May 2019, the UN General Assembly voted overwhelmingly in favor of the Chagos Islands’ return to Mauritius. 

The UN resolution – which was backed by 116 member states – called on Britain to return the Chagos Islands to Mauritius within six months. 

Britain, however, ignored the UN deadline, drawing widespread condemnation from the international community.

Jugnauth on Tuesday branded Britain as an “illegal colonial occupier” at the time.

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