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United Kingdom
Prime Minister's Official Spokesman
Lobby Briefing
September 27, 2001
11:00 A.M. GMT

The Prime Minister's Official Spokesman (PMOS) informed journalists that the Prime Minister would be meeting Muslim leaders today at 2.30pm. He would follow that by holding a press conference to talk about the meeting and to update the current situation at 3.15pm. At 5pm he would chair a meeting of Cabinet. This had been characterised by some newspapers as a civil contingencies Cabinet. It was not. It would look across the piece at the diplomatic, political, military and humanitarian situation.

The Prime Minister hoped to speak to Ruud Lubbers head of UNHCR and Chris Patten of the European Commission later today to discuss the humanitarian situation. David Blunkett was at the Justice and Home Affairs Council in Brussels. Jack Straw would be returning from his tour of the Middle East and was in Egypt at the moment.

Asked for an update on whether the Prime Minister would be attending CHOGM the PMOS said the situation remained under review. He couldn't say any more than that at the moment.

Air Security

Asked if there was a meeting with the Airline Pilots Association today the PMOS said that as he understood it there was one taking place with officials at the Department of Transport. They would want to discuss a range of security issues amongst other things. Journalists should not expect an announcement out of this meeting. Measures had already been taken including the announcement about the increased use of CCTV at Heathrow made by David Blunkett last week. Obviously we had been taking steps to tighten our security measures still further since September 11; today would be a chance to look at some of the longer term issues that had arisen. Asked for the PM's view on air marshals the PMOS said obviously it was one of the issues that would be looked at, but he didn't want to indicate more than that. Put to him that they wouldn't be of use unless they were a global measure the PMOS said it wasn't clear whether the Americans were looking beyond domestic flights at this stage. There was an undertaking to look at all the issues of security, this was clearly one of them and would be looked at. Journalists should not read any more into it than that at present.

NATO meeting

Asked about yesterday's NATO meeting and whether it was the case that any military action would be limited to the USA and UK the PMOS said that firstly, at this stage no request had been made as had been clear from the meeting. One only had to look at the comments of Chancellor Schroeder in terms of the German willingness to offer military assistance. There were people who would always seek to interpret these things as "the coalition dividing". The fact was the coalition was very strong. As the PM had said on Tuesday the Japanese Prime Minister had indicated that while Japan would not be offering military support it was significant that he was offering his country's help in other ways. You had to look at this as an international coalition where different countries would do different things according to their means. But there was a steadfast solidarity of purpose from all in tackling international terrorism. There were two phases to this response. Bringing those responsible to account and dismantling the machinery of terror. That was going to require a whole range of political, military, diplomatic and other approaches. We had seen from the international response the wide range of countries signed up to this.

Iran

Asked about the Iranian response, whether they were offering conflicting signals and if the PM would be raising this with Chris Patten the PMOS said that the discussion with Mr Patten would mainly be focussed on humanitarian issues. In terms of Iran what was clear, both in terms of President Khatami's willingness to meet Jack Straw and through his conversation with the Prime Minister, was that they condemned what had happened. It was important that those comments were studied. Pressed that they weren't going to participate in the coalition the PMOS said different countries would respond in different ways. It was a sign of significant progress that Jack Straw had been in Tehran this week.

Consumer Confidence

Asked if the Prime Minister was concerned about the fall in consumer confidence the PMOS said that as the Chancellor had said following the events of September 11 that obviously these were challenging and testing times for the global economy. What had been demonstrated since then had been its resilience. The right things had been done. Markets had continued to function. There had been the short pause in America, but they had been back in days. There had been contact with OPEC in order to ensure the oil price remained steady. There had been consolidated action by the Federal Reserve, European Central Bank, Bank of England and other Central banks in terms of bringing down interest rates. Clearly no economy could be immune from the global slowdown. But equally the fundamentals here were sound. We had low inflation. Interest rates at a 30 year low. Unemployment at its lowest for 25 years. And the public finances were sound. Consumer confidence by its nature was borne out by how people felt. That was in turn affected by how things were presented to them. It was important that there was a sense of perspective, and that difficulties were not exaggerated. People should continue going to work, travelling and shopping as the vast majority were.

Conference speech

Asked if the Prime Minister's Party Conference speech was likely to be a one issue speech the PMOS said it was not for him to brief on Labour Party matters. Clearly the PM's speech would reflect events of September 11, but there was nor reason for it not to cover other issues.

Taliban

Asked if the Government would still want to see the Taliban toppled if Bin Laden was handed over the PMOS said we had made clear to the regime in Afghanistan that we were absolutely determined to bring the perpetrators of this atrocity to justice and they had a choice. It was clear to them what they had to do. To hand over Bin Laden. To dismantle the camps. It was for them now to grasp that opportunity. As the PM had said if they didn't do that our enemy's friend would be regarded as our enemy. In terms of our objectives they were as previously stated. To bring those responsible to justice and to dismantle the machinery of terror. The international community were united in this. You only had to see what, for example, the UN resolution had said within days of the atrocity, that those who harbored terrorists were themselves accountable. Asked if we considered the Taliban part of the machinery of terror the PMOS said what was absolutely clear was that they were harboring terrorists. That could not be said often enough. Our objectives were as he had set them out.

Asked if there was not some irony in asking the Taliban to do something (in handing over Bin Laden) which the European Union might have difficulty over because of the issue over him facing the death sentence the PMOS said the international community was rock solid in the need to bring those who had carried out the attack to justice. There were clearly talks going on in the JHA about extradition more generally.

Asked if there were any formal plans to have an established War Cabinet the PMOS said should that issue need to be addressed it could be addressed quite quickly. Pressed, he said he was neither ruling it in nor out.

Asked if the ultimatum was open-ended and if we were telling the Taliban that time was running out the PMOS said that yes it was and we were. If they didn't know after last Thursday and the Presidents speech to Congress they had a further reminder after the Prime Minister had spoken on Tuesday. We saw no signs of them moving in that direction. Our preparations continued on the diplomatic, military and humanitarian front. Just because this was taking time people should not doubt the seriousness of the international community's intent to deal with this issue.

Asked if we were any closer to publishing the evidence against Bin Laden the PMOS said there was nothing he could point to at this stage.

Asked if there was any update on travel advice to UK passport holders in Pakistan the PMOS said that as he understood it there had been no change since the advice issued last week.

Meeting with Muslim leaders

Asked if there were any plans for legislation against religious discrimination the PMOS said not as far as he was aware. In terms of the meeting with Muslim leaders this afternoon the PM would want to stress again that this was not a conflict with Islam. The atrocity of September 11 went against all the proper teachings of Islam. Islam was a peace loving and tolerant religion. The atrocity had been condemned the world over, that included Muslims the world over. Indeed many Muslims had died in New York. As the PM had written in the Daily Jang newspaper blaming Islam for it was like blaming Christianity for the events in Northern Ireland. What we mustn't let happen was for the terrorists to succeed in setting different religions against each other, nor to allow extremists in this country to use it to promote their own racial bigotry. Asked if this meant there were no plans to change the policy on faith schools the PMOS said that was correct.

Asked if it was correct that the Prime Minister had been reading the Koran the PMOS said it had been well documented that he had been reading it over the summer. He had a keen interest in interfaith issues and had been reading it off and on over a number of years.

Refugees

Asked about the build-up of refugees and whether there would be a knock-on in terms of numbers accepted in this country the PMOS said that at this stage the different aid agencies and the international community were coming together to work through the whole range of issues involved. There was a meeting in Berlin today. It was important to look at the history of this. There was a significant humanitarian issue already as a result of 20 years of war, 3 years of drought and 7 years of Taliban oppression. This was not a new phenomenon. In that time some 4 or 5 million Afghans had fled over the border to Pakistan and the surrounding countries before September 11. There was an issue in terms particularly of getting food to those who are still in Afghanistan. And that was an issue which the international community was looking at as a matter of some urgency. At this stage food was still getting through in the North of the country but not the South. We were very alive to the humanitarian issues which was why the PM was talking to Ruud Lubbers and Chris Patten today. It was worth noting that the UK was possibly the first country to respond with new measures last week to address the humanitarian issues with the pledge for £25m for the region on top of the £35m we had given last year.

Asked if we had had any political contacts with the Afghani Royal family or the Northern Alliance the PMOS said that in terms of the stories over the weekend about the Afghan King they were unfounded. As far as he was aware there were no political contacts with the Northern Alliance. The issue in front of us was meeting our objectives. There may be longer term issues relating to Afghanistan. But that was where our focus was.

END


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Crown copyright material reproduced with the permission of the Controller of HMSO.