The Mauritian government has raised its national flag on board a boat heading to the disputed Chagos archipelago, deep in the Indian Ocean.
This is the first time that Mauritius has sent a vessel independently to the islands, as it seeks to enforce its claim to a vast maritime zone which two United Nations courts have now determined are occupied illegally by the UK.
“We are going to a part of Mauritius. It is not an unfriendly act, it is not a hostile act [against Britain],” said Jagdish Koonjul, Mauritius’s UN ambassador, who is leading the government delegation after the country’s prime minister pulled out at the last minute.
“It is what we believe is the right way to proceed in accordance with international law which has clearly stated that Mauritius is the sovereign power over the Chagos archipelago,” he said.
Britain’s foreign office has responded in a conciliatory manner to the trip, noting that the Mauritian government had informed them of its plans “to conduct a scientific survey close to the Chagos Islands”.
“The UK shares this interest in environmental protection and gave assurances to Mauritius that it would not interrupt the survey,” it said.
In fact, the survey planned by Mauritius has little to do with marine protection but is, instead, concerned with mapping the international borders of its territory in line with a recent ruling by the UN’s International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea.
The Mauritian delegation is also planning to go ashore on two of the larger islands in the archipelago, rather than restricting itself to areas “close to the Chagos Islands”, as stated by the UK.
The boat had planned to leave from the Maldives, which is close to the Chagos Islands, but the Mauritian government changed plans after the Maldives government sought to block journalists from taking part in the trip, most likely following diplomatic pressure from Britain.
The boat eventually left from the Seychelles, which is four to five days by sea from Chagos.
Onboard are scientists who plan to map the largely submerged Blenheim reef, in order to assess whether it could affect the ongoing process of demarcating of the maritime border between Mauritius and the Maldives.
Five Chagossians, who were forced from their homes by the UK when it took control of the islands half a century ago, are also on the boat, and plan to visit the remains of their old villages.