London (CNSNews.com) - A British court Friday made a decision that may seriously affect the future of a highly-strategic United States military location in the Indian Ocean.
The court ruled that the UK government acted unlawfully 30 years ago in exiling islanders to make way for the base.
High Court judge Lord Justice Laws said a 1971 administrative order banning the islanders from returning represented an "abject legal failure" and should be quashed.
The decision prepares the way for the Chagos islanders to return to their homes. But one of the 52-island group is Diego Garcia, a horseshoe-shaped British territory that is home to an important U.S. naval and air base.
Fully operational since 1986, the base was used as a refueling stop and launchpad for B52 bombers deployed during the 1991 Persian Gulf War and in subsequent Gulf crises. According to Pentagon figures for 1998, more than 700 servicemen, most of them Navy personnel, are based there for short tours, as well as civilian contractors.
The Federation of American Scientists says the tiny island is also the location of one of three sites - the others are in New Mexico and Hawaii - for equipment carrying out ground-based optical tracking of satellites.
Although the UK is responsible for the islands' defense and maintains a small Royal Navy presence there for mostly policing and customs duties, the U.S. has a 50-year lease on the base until at least 2016.
Friday's court decision is embarrassing for the UK government. While in opposition, current Foreign Minister Robin Cook in 1982 backed the claims of the Chagos islanders and Britain's "moral responsibility" toward them, but now in government he has opposed the legal application.
The Foreign Ministry was Friday considering its appeal options. In a statement issued after the ruling, it pointed out the treaty obligations with U.S. and said "we are not seeking to defend what happened in the 1960s and 1970s. We have to deal with the situation as it is now.
"We have been continuing work on a study to consider the feasibility of resettlement on the outer islands of the territory, and this work will carry on."
The Chagos archipelago lies south of India and east of Africa, 1,000 miles from the nearest mainland. For several hundred years its small population comprised the descendants of freed African slaves and Indian plantation workers.
Fearing their presence would be a security risk, the UK government between 1967 and 1973 forcibly removed several thousand of them to Mauritius, a larger island nation nearer Africa which at the time was British-ruled.
Britain reportedly paid Mauritius to take the people of its hands, and they have lived in squalid condition in Mauritian slums ever since.
Oliver Bancoult, a spokesmen for the islanders, welcomed the ruling and said the people were looking forward to returning to their "motherland."
But any attempt to repatriate them to outlying islands in the group, while remaining banned from Diego Garcia, would not be acceptable to them, Bancoult told reporters outside the court.
"In our demands we have asked for all our islands including Diego Garcia. We have a fundamental right to return even if there is an agreement [between Britain and the U.S.]"
Lawyers for the group said they expected the British government to come up with a compensation package to help the islands rebuild their homes, which were lost along with their jobs on copra plantations, when they were evacuated.
Pentagon spokesman Lieutenant Dave Guy said Friday the U.S. was deferring all comment to the British government.
He described Diego Garcia as a "logistical hub" for the Indian Ocean, with both sea-based and aviation support functions.