On the Indian Ocean atoll of Diego Garcia, US Navy Seabees are erecting a huge US air and naval base, while a thousand miles to the southwest, the tiny island nation of Mauritius is laying claim to the palm-studded island.
The 17-square-mile cay and attendant islands were discovered by Portuguese navigator Diego Garcia in 1532 and were surrendered to Britain by France at the end of the Napoleonic Wars. Britain administered the islands as a dependency of Mauritius, a strategic island lying 1,174 miles to the southwest that it had wrested from the French in 1810.
When Mauritius gained independence in 1968, Diego Garcia did not run up the Mauritian flag. Indeed, in December 1966, Britain signed an agreement with Washington granting the US base rights on the atoll until the year 2016. By 1971, 600 seabees were at work on Diego Garcia and in July 1971 the first C-130 transport landed on a 3,500-foot airstrip.
In 1972 it was decided to set up an Anglo-American communication facility on the island, a facility that may include electronic surveillance equipment capable of eaves- dropping on Soviet warships in the Indian Ocean.
Britain compensated Mauritius to the tune of L3 million for the "excision" of Diego Garcia. Some 1,500 islanders, mostly copra plantation workers, were removed to Mauritius. In 1975 they were reported to be poverty-stricken, ill-housed, and bewildered. Today they live in shanties around the municipal garbage dump in Port Louis, the capital. Nearly all are petitioning the US and British governments to repatriate them.
But base or no base, Mauritius is determinedly laying claim to the 15 -mile-long island now equipped with a 12,000-foot runway that can accommodate Navy P-3 Orion submarine hunters and giant C-5A Galaxy transports.
In essence, mauritius feels that Her Majesty's government dealt with it deviously in 1965. "We never talked about a [military] base," says Sir Veerasamy Ringadoo, the nation's deputy prime minster. "We talked about a communication base. We never agreed about having in the Indian Ocean area, near our shores, a military base. And that is the crux of the matter."
Sir Veerasamy says he expects that Mauritius will air its grievances over the island in talks with Britain. But he warns that his country it is prepared to take the matter to the International Court of Justice in the Hague and to the United Nations.
The Organization of African Unity (OAU) recently unanimously supported the Mauritian claim to Diego Garcia and called for the removal of all foreign bases from the Indian Ocean.
Sir Veerasamy points out that a precedent for the return of the islands was set when Aldabra, Farquhar, and Desroches reverted to the Seychelles when it achieved independence in 1976.
The US State Department regards the question of Diego Garcia's ownership as a matter between Britain and Mauritius and is declining comment on the dispute. But according to a spokesman quoted in Africa News, a weekly digest of African affairs, Mauritius was "buffaloed" or "duped" into parting with the atoll.
Mauritius is irked by what it regards as Britain's less-than-honest dealing and by London's readiness, unheralded in the 1965 talks, to turn Diego Garcia over to the US.
The deputy prime minister also accuses Britain of welching on an agreement to "import all their requirements" for the communications base from Mauritius and to employ Mauritians as support personnel at the site.
If Diego Garcia were to revert to Mauritius, how would Port Louis view the US base? "We'll have to take into account what is taking place in the Indian Ocean ," says Sir Veerasamy, who stresses that Mauritius favors "a zone of peace" in the region.
The US Defense Department will be watching the outcome of the controversy with interest. It plans to spend $1 billion on enlarging its base at Diego Garcia.