US Navy air support base on Diego Garcia 'unaffected' by ruling on islanders' right to return

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The highest UK court has ruled that former inhabitants of an Indian Ocean island archipelago removed to make way for a US air base base may be permitted to return.

The UK High Court ruled in favour yesterday of families exiled from the Chagos islands by the UK government between 1965 and 1973. The evacuation came as part of a deal to lease the island of Diego Garcia to the US government for the construction of a joint UK-US navy support facility. Prior to the lease, around 1,400-2,000 local inhabitants lived on the islands and were relocated to the Seychelles or to Mauritius.

The UK Chagos Support Group says it expects the UK government to appeal against the current ruling, citing national security, adding that “perhaps a return home will now be possible”. It is unclear how the air operations of the base woudl be affected by any return, should it ever transpire.

Diego Garcia air base, with a 3,600m (12,000ft) runway is the base for USAF long range bombers and surveillance aircraft. The island is a restricted zone under UK law.

The High Court victory of the Chagos islanders is the final appeal in a long legal process to grant the right to resettle the remote British Indian Ocean Territory 55-island chain that lies 1,600 kilometres (1,000 miles) south of India's southern coast, mid-way between Africa and Indonesia.

However, Diego Garcia island represents 44km2 (17mi2) of the total 60km2 of the archipelago and the lease terms allow the US military to restrict access to the main island. Diego Garcia is considered to be the only inhabitable island and the US lease on Diego Garcia expires in 2016.

Chagossians won a ruling in 2000 that their eviction was unlawful, but the UK government then introduced new residency rules. Islander groups claim they could supplement the 4,000 US and UK military support staff at the base, although the US says this would constitute a security breach for the base.

In ruling, High Court judge Sir Sydney Kentridge QC described the treatment of Chagossians as "outrageous, unlawful and a breach of accepted moral standards". He added there was no precedent for evacuation.