Friday, April 06, 2007

Sensitive diplomacy

A bell has been ringing in the back of my mind as the Iranian hostage situation has unfolded and I just tracked it down to page 613 of my OUP paperback edition of Pity The Nation, Robert Fisk's account of Lebanon during the first half of the 1980s, and written before he went completely... er, that is before he fully became the Fisk we know and love today.

The kidnappings of westerners had begun...

On 1 October 1985, it was the Russians' turn. Three diplomats kidnapped, one of them - Arkady Katkov - shot and dumped on waste ground in West Beirut.
[Soviet journalist, suspected KGB man and Fisk's friend, Konstantin Kapitanov identified the body] Kapitanov crying. I could scarcely believe it. 'We shall find the people who did this,' he said.

They did. The Soviets sought help from the Druze. A brother of one of the supposed kidnappers was abducted. Later, so we heard, his family received one of his fingers in an envelope. Then another. The two surviving Soviet hostages were freed unharmed.

UPDATE: As an aside, although I have been skimming this book (it's 15 years since I read it last) and can't find the quote, I'm sure somewhere in it is one of my favourite terrorism stories. There was a spate of airplane hijackings during which it was demanded that the pilots "Fly me to Beirut!"

One particular pilot was especially surprised when a passenger burst into his cockpit brandishing a handgun, and shouted this demand. The plane had not long taken off from Cyprus. The scheduled destination? Beirut.

UPDATE2: An irrelevant anecdote. I got to know a Phalangist militiaman in about 1992. He was a seriously heavy character, very proud that his brother had trekked across a mountain pass to be the first Lebanese man to confront Syrian tanks as they entered the Bekaa Valley - kneeling to fire the anti-tank shells he'd carried on his back for three days. He also had some interesting stories about the massacres at Chatila and Bourj al-Barajneh (which he'd witnessed), but they can wait for another time. When I knew him, he was planning his return to the Lebanon, where he was going to open a very regional business - a bring-your-own-weapon firing range. Anything up to rocket launchers accepted.

UPDATE3: I was approached, in the late 1980s, and asked to provide training services for one of the Lebanese militias (not the Phalange). At the time, I occasionally worked with some former SAS soldiers who had set up a security company that could indeed supply such services. Conscious that this was a delicate area to enter into, I sought a meeting with the Foreign Office and wound up in an office in King Charles Street, talking with one of the relevant people there. The upshot was that, while the government could of course not condone any such activities, indeed prohibited them, they'd be interested to know how things went if I did go ahead.

Now, of course, that's how things work. But Britain has a habit, historically, of hanging people out to dry if they do get involved in such matters and they go wrong - and not every government does that. And that's why I'm adding this update. That's a bad way to go about things. The history of the twentieth century is littered with names like Klop Ustinov and Peter Wright, who reacted differently to being stranded by an ungrateful country, but were expected to die in poverty after promises had been dishonoured.

That's why I watched with interest the eventually abandoned prosecutions of directors of Forgemasters and Walter Somers after the Iraqi supergun affair. They were, it seemed to me, people who had been placed in a similar position to the one I was toying with, and who had not received the support they deserved.

This is a very British disease. Our security does depend on, among other things, informal arrangements with people entering into transactions that exceed formal boundaries. Other countries - France and America spring to mind - are less dishonourable. A businessman who has been careful to keep the Foreign Office informed at every stage should not lose their business and face prosecution as a consequence of their (unofficially) sanctioned activities.

And yes, I've drifted seriously off-topic.


rightwingprof said...

There are plenty of us over here on this side of the ocean who are pissed as hell (that would be pissed as in angry) at Pelosi for refusing to give any support, even an empty statement, to the UK about this.

Peter Risdon said...

We had more support from Yanks than from the EU or the UN, and that's appreciated, Prof. We all know what Pelosi is like.

Anonymous said...

Peter you really do have a colourful history!

Not that I've any experience of what you are talking about with regards to the FO backing up, or not as the case may be, their citizens in foreign countries - but we all know the Americans, and the French, look after their own come what may - unlike us. It's a real crying shame.

rightwingprof said...

"We all know what Pelosi is like."

We thought we did. Nobody was surprised that she went to Syria to undermine the administration. But to refuse to support the UK, of all nations on the planet? Bill Clinton wouldn't have done that. Of all the stunts she's pulled, that is the worst.