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Mauritius says Pope visit supports claim to Chagos Islands

PORT LOUIS, Mauritius (Reuters) - Authorities in Mauritius cast remarks from Pope Francis during a visit on Monday as a boost for their claim to a chain of islands held by Britain, including one rented to the United States for the Diego Garcia air base.

Pope Francis wrapped up a trip to Africa that also included stops in Madagascar and Mozambique with a lightning visit to the Indian Ocean island country of Mauritius, where he said Mass for 100,000 people on a terraced mountainside overlooking a harbour.

He arrived in the former British colony to a welcome by crowds waving palm fronds as he drove past sugarcane fields on his way to the capital.

In greetings after the Mass to various delegations, Francis referred to the Chagos Islands, an archipelago that Britain rules as the British Indian Ocean Territory.

Britain detached the Chagos Islands from Mauritius before Mauritius gained independence. London then expelled the population of the islands, then numbering about 2,000 people, to build the air base.

“This represents an important step forward in our fight to recognise the sovereignty of the Republic of Mauritius over the Chagos archipelago”, a senior source in Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth’s office told Reuters of the Pope’s reference to the islands. Islanders said they had taken hope from the Pope’s reference to them.

“I was very happy and proud to hear the pope say Chagos after his homily,” said Rosemond Saminaden, 83, who was forced to leave one of the islands in 1973, and is a member of the Chagos Refugee Group, pushing for restitution of their land.

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“This gives us a lot of hope and courage. We are happy that the pope thinks about us and that he knows that we are far from our land,” he told Reuters.

In an address to the pope on Monday night, Prime Minister Jugnauth thanked him “for your interest in the suffering of our citizens who were forcibly expelled from the Chagos Archipelago by Great Britain....”

Last February, the International Court of Justice ruled that the Chagos islanders had been evicted unlawfully and told Britain to give back control over the islands to Mauritius.

In May, the U.N. General Assembly overwhelmingly demanded that Britain give up control over the Chagos Islands within six months. Such resolutions are non-binding.

The main reason for Francis’ trip was to pay tribute to Jacques-Désiré Laval, a 19th century French priest who helped former slaves. Francis visited a sanctuary dedicated to Laval.

Mauritius has benefited greatly from tourism and a financial services sector. But anti-poverty campaigners say its role as an offshore financial haven can facilitate tax avoidance in other countries, draining them of revenues.

Francis appeared to refer to this when he urged government officials “not to yield to the temptation of an idolatrous economic model that feels the need to sacrifice human lives on the altar of speculation and profit alone ...”.

The pope was returning to Madagascar for the night and was due to leave for Rome on Tuesday morning.

Reporting by Philip Pullella; Editing by Hugh Lawson and Frances Kerry