LONDON - Britain and Mauritius have begun talks aimed at ending a decades-old spat over the legal status of the Chagos Islands, whose population was forcibly cleared in the late 1960s to allow the building of a joint UK-US military installation.
Mauritius lays full claim to the remote Indian Ocean archipelago, currently administered by Britain, which has a joint military base there with the United States.
In his New Year address, Mauritian Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth said, "the latest developments on the Chagos issue are very encouraging. Negotiations between Mauritius and Britain have begun."
In November, UK Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said in a written ministerial statement that the countries "have decided to begin negotiations on the exercise of sovereignty over the British Indian Ocean Territory/Chagos Archipelago".
Cleverly added they had agreed to hold "constructive negotiations" and hope to reach an agreement early this year.
His statement followed a meeting in September between the countries' prime ministers at the United Nations General Assembly.
The UK foreign secretary said that Britain intends to "resolve all outstanding issues, including those relating to the former inhabitants of the Chagos Archipelago".
The countries agreed that a joint UK and US military base on Diego Garcia – the largest of the seven main atolls – will continue to operate whatever the results of the talks, the minister said.
In 1965, Britain decided to separate the islands from Mauritius and set up a military base there.
Mauritius – which became an independent Commonwealth country in 1968 – has long fought to return the archipelago to its territory and has gained international support for its cause.
An International Court of Justice ruling in 2019 backed Mauritius' claim and said Britain should give up control of the islands.
Following the move, the UN General Assembly overwhelmingly voted in favour of a resolution recognising that "the Chagos Archipelago forms an integral part of the territory of Mauritius" and recommending Britain withdraw within six months.