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25 May 2004 00:00
There is not a scrap of vegetation in the Ma’alah British military cemetery in Aden, just rows of neat headstones to record the names of squaddies who lost their lives the last time Britain fought, and lost, a war of resistance in the Middle East.
In an arms bazaar, north of the Yemeni capital of Sana’a, I happened across a couple of SLR rifles — standard weapons that might once have been carried by those same British soldiers now lying in the cemetery.
The dirty campaign they fought brought to an end Britain’s colonial presence in the Arabian peninsula nearly 40 years ago. But the imperial folly is being repeated in Iraq.
There is little to remind the visitor of Britain’s century and a half in command of Aden, once the most strategic port in the world.
The Adenese have little nostalgia for British rule: local ministers in what is now a united Yemen are polite, yet regard British aid as reparation.
Crater district in Aden remains the same tight labyrinth of streets that once played home to hundreds of insurgents from the Front for the Liberation of South Yemen (Flosy).
During the most bitter years of the “Aden emergency’‘, which lasted from 1963 to 1967, Crater was a virtual no-go zone. The British “terrorist weapons and tactics team’’ specialised in what one retired operative recalls as “using terrorist weapons and tactics against terrorists’‘.
Oliver Miles, author of The British Withdrawal From Aden, says that “misinformation and psychological warfare’’ were widely practised and “pressure was applied’’ on prisoners to secure information — until the then Labour government was obliged to step in after a damning report from Amnesty International.
Then, as now, evidence of British army brutality surfaced: nervous squaddies, waiting in the baking heat for grenades and sniper fire, were accused of overreacting, and the deployment of “snatch squads’’ to haul in suspects was condemned.
Amnesty’s 1966 report chronicled British torture of detainees, including stripping detainees and making them stand naked during interrogation; keeping them awake and forcing them to sit on poles directed towards the anus and hitting and twisting genitals.
Initially, the British government dismissed the charges, but later introduced changes to protect detainees.
As it became apparent that insurgents under the control of Abdullah Asnag’s Flosy and the more militant National Liberation Front were beginning to pin down Britain’s 30 000-plus army and RAF presence, hurried preparations were made for withdrawal. At the height of the insurgency, Lieutenant Colonel Campbell “Mad Mitch’’ Mitchell led a force into the fiery heart of Crater, where the local police had mutinied and British soldiers had been killed. The true number of casualties in the ensuing battle never became known. Mitchell’s onslaught may have ended the insurgency in that part of Aden, but it also hastened Britain’s withdrawal from Arabia.
“Mad Mitch’’ went on to win a seat in the United Kingdom Parliament, as the Conservative MP, but Denis Healey, then Labour’s secretary of state for defence, had decided on a “no British forces east of Suez’’ policy. That was to remain more-or-less the watchword for successive British governments — until the historically challenged Tony Blair decided on Britain’s ill-fated adventure in Iraq 40 years on.
Ironically, modern-day united Yemen is a functioning democracy with something approaching a free press. After attempts by al-Qaeda to sink the USS Cole in Aden harbour, Ali Abdullah Saleh, the Yemeni president, asked the Americans and the British for help in training his anti-terrorism units. But when a delegation visited him last week in Sana’a's presidential palace, Saleh (he has tried and failed to meet Blair on three occasions) was bristling.
“Perhaps you British would prefer to go and drink some tea, rather than listen to the truth,’’ he said. “What you are doing in Iraq is unacceptable. If you wanted oil you could have had it, without violating the Iraqi people!’‘
Saleh had a parting gift for each of us: a specially minted coin. “It depicts the flag of Yemen being raised over the old British governor’s palace in Aden,’’ the president told us, without a smile. — Â
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