Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond stopped short of confirming reports that the Foreign Office warning against all but essential travel to Tunisia could be lifted within weeks yesterday.
Hammond appeared in front of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee yesterday amid media reports – which the FCO did not deny – that he said on Monday that the British travel advice could be lifted “within weeks, certainly months”.
Committee member, Mike Gapes MP, asked Hammond why, when the majority of European countries have not updated their travel advice to Tunisia in the same manner following the attack in Sousse last month, Britain is taking the strong line it is.
“The simple answer is that Germany – which also has significant tourist traffic to Tunisia – has a team which only arrived in the country yesterday to start doing the work that we started doing in the immediate aftermath of the attack,” said Hammond.
“We have developed a picture very clearly…we have to look at the scale of the threat and the mitigation that is in place and make a judgement on that balance as to whether or not we continue to advise British tourists that it is sensible to travel to a particular destination.
“The judgement is that it is not [safe] at the present time. I hope that the combination of action that the Tunisian government is taking to deal with the network behind the attack and action the government is taking to reinforce preventative security will allow us to review the advice in due course.”
Hammond said it was he who made the decision to upgrade the travel advice to Tunisia almost two weeks after the incident.
“I discussed it with the Prime Minister as we were very much aware of the fact that it would have a significant impact on the Tunisian economy,” he said.
Asked why he had changed the advice, Mr Hammond said: “Intelligence. As we embedded more and more people with the Tunisian authorities and as they uncovered more of the picture around this attack, the picture that we developed made us more concerned that a further attack targeting western interests was likely.”
Hammond was asked whether the British government would provide any assistance to the Tunisian government. He said: “I had a meeting with the Tunisian prime minister and foreign minister in Brussels.
“The Tunisians must obviously be disappointed but I have to say that the Prime Minister has been very gracious…the Tunisian response is not to sulk but to work with us to create conditions in which we can review that advice as soon as possible.
“We have an extremely constructive relationship with the Tunisian government on a political level, with the security and intelligence agencies and with the police. We have found them willing to engage with our experts and keen to build their capabilities.”
Hammond said the UK is providing Tunisia with technical assistance – helping the country with its investigations into the Sousse attacks – and in helping it “build their capacity more generally” to ensure that their detection and interrogation processes are fully compliant with human rights requirements, which enables the UK to share intelligence with it.
He continued: “We are also working with our EU partners on a package of economic support for Tunisia, recognising that the Tunisian economy has been significantly impacted.
“I think Federica Mogherini, the EU high representative, announced yesterday that the EU is working towards a package of temporary increases in olive oil quotas to the EU which will provide some immediate relief to the fiscal and foreign exchange challenges Tunisia faces.”
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