By Simon Lewis and David Brunnstrom
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -British Foreign Secretary David Cameron and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Thursday they had discussed the “vital” U.S.-UK Indian Ocean air base at Diego Garcia, and Blinken said Washington recognized British sovereignty there.
The air base is on British Indian Ocean Territory in the Chagos Islands that a vote in the United Nations General Assembly in 2019 said should be returned to Mauritius.
Cameron did not give a specific response at a joint news conference with Blinken when asked about a report in Britain’s Daily Telegraph this month that said British Defence Minister Grant Shapps wanted Britain to drop plans to hand back the islands.
“On the issue of the vital U.S. air base at Diego Garcia, when foreign secretaries and secretaries of state get together, they often discuss the importance of the assets that we share and use around the world, and that is an important one, and we touched on that this afternoon,” Cameron said.
Blinken said the base played a vital role for the U.S. in the Indo-Pacific region and for global security.
“It enables our own support for regional stability; gives us an ability to respond rapidly to crises, and also to counter some of the most challenging threats that we face,” he said.
“We …recognize UK sovereignty over British Indian Ocean Territory,” Blinken said, while adding: “But this is a bilateral matter for the UK and Mauritius to work out and we support their engagement to resolve the differences.”
Britain, which has overseen the region since 1814, detached the Chagos islands in 1965 from Mauritius – a colony that gained independence three years later – to create the British Indian Ocean Territory.
The British government leased the Chagos archipelago’s biggest island, Diego Garcia, to the United States in 1966, paving the way for construction of an airbase that required the forced removal of some 2,000 people.
Diego Garcia became an important U.S. base during the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, acting as a launch pad for long-range bombers.
Britain conceded in 2008 that the U.S. had used Diego Garcia for “rendition” flights to transfer terrorism suspects, having maintaining for years that it was unaware of such activity.
In 2016, Britain extended the U.S. lease of Diego Garcia until 2036 and some British politicians now want to keep control of the islands for longer.
In 2019, the African Union called on Britain to withdraw from the Chagos Islands and end its “continued colonial administration” there after a U.N. deadline for it to do so expired.
(Reporting by Simon Lewis, David Brunnstrom and Rami Ayyub in Washington; Additional reporting by Alistair Smout in London; Editing by Leslie Adler and David Gregorio)