LONDON: The British government reaffirmed its sovereignty over a remote Indian Ocean archipelago after Mauritius underlined its own territorial claim by planting a flag on the islands.
Officials planted the red, blue, yellow and green flag of Mauritius on the Peros Banhos atoll in the Chagos Islands, whose residents were expelled by Britain half a century ago to make way for a US military base.
Several Chagos islanders accompanied Mauritian officials on a voyage that also involved a scientific survey of a nearby coral reef.
It was the first time they had set foot there since Britain evicted about 2,000 residents in the 1960s and 70s so the US military could build an air base on Diego Garcia, one of the islands.
The Guardian reported that a message from Mauritius Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth was played at the flag-raising, hailing the “historic visit.”
“The message I wish to give out to the world, as the state with sovereignty over the Chagos archipelago, is that we will ensure a wise stewardship of its territory — over its maritime security, conservation of the marine environment and human rights, notably the return of those of Chagossian origin,” he was quoted as saying.
Britain’s Foreign Office said Monday that the UK “has no doubt as to our sovereignty over the British Indian Ocean Territory, which we have held continuously since 1814.”
“Mauritius has never held sovereignty over the territory and the UK does not recognize its claim,” it said in a statement.
The displaced residents have fought for years in the courts for the right to return to their home islands, which the UK calls the British Indian Ocean Territory.
In 2019 the International Court of Justice and the United Nations General Assembly both told Britain to give up control of the islands, which it held on to after Mauritius gained independence in 1968.
The international court said in a non-binding opinion that Britain had unlawfully carved up Mauritius, an archipelago nation whose main island is some 2,000 kilometers (1,200 miles) off the southeast coast of Africa.
Successive British governments have expressed regret about the way the islanders were removed but have not allowed them to return or heeded the non-binding international opinions.
In 2020 Britain said it would “cede sovereignty of the territory to Mauritius when it is no longer required for defense purposes.”