UK to conduct Middle East surveillance flights to help find Hamas hostages

The Ministry of Defence said the flights over Israel and Gaza airspace will be unarmed.

The UK will conduct unarmed surveillance flights over the Middle East to search for potential hostage locations being used by Hamas, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) confirmed on Saturday.

The flights will be purely for surveillance purposes, the department said, and will be unarmed. Only information that could be useful in rescuing hostages will be passed on to the relevant authorities.

Fighting resumed on Friday following a week-long truce between Israel and the Palestinian military group despite more than 130 hostages remaining in captivity in the Gaza Strip.

In the weeks after Hamas’ bloody October 7 raids on Israel, Downing Street said at least 12 British nationals had been killed in the attack and a further five are still missing.

Some of those are believed to have been kidnapped but the UK Government has not confirmed how many might be being held by Hamas.

The MoD on Saturday said ministers had been working with allies across the Middle East to “secure the release of hostages, including British nationals, who have been kidnapped”.

In a statement published on the Government website, the department said: “The safety of British nationals is our utmost priority.

“In support of the ongoing hostage rescue activity, the UK Ministry of Defence will conduct surveillance flights over the eastern Mediterranean, including operating in air space over Israel and Gaza.

“Surveillance aircraft will be unarmed, do not have a combat role, and will be tasked solely to locate hostages.

“Only information relating to hostage rescue will be passed to the relevant authorities responsible for hostage rescue.”

MoD officials said a range of unarmed aircraft would be used for the reconnaissance flights, including Shadow R1s which are used for intelligence gathering by the Royal Air Force (RAF).

Information on the potential whereabouts of captives will be shared with Israel.

The lull in the fighting during the truce allowed for 105 hostages held by Hamas and other militants to be freed.

Israeli released hostage Mia Shem reuniting with her family at Sheba Medical Center in Tel Hashomer, Ramat Gan, Israel. / Credit: GPO / AP

Some had been kept for several weeks in underground tunnels dug by the Gaza rulers.

In exchange, Israel released 240 Palestinians from its prisons. Most of those released by both sides were women and children.

But fighting commenced again from Friday morning, with the Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry reporting that at least 200 Palestinians have been killed since the violence resumed, taking the death toll within the territory to beyond 15,200.

The Israel Defence Forces (IDF) pounded targets in the crowded southern half of Gaza on Saturday.

There are fears of mounting civilian casualties after Israel dropped leaflets warning residents to leave the southern part of the strip where two million people – almost the entire Gazan population – are based following instructions at the outset of the IDF ground invasion to leave the north of the enclave.

A Palestinian woman inspects a damaged house following Israeli airstrikes on the town of Khan Younis, Gaza. / Credit: AP

The US and others have urged Tel Aviv to do more to protect Gaza civilians as the Israel-Hamas conflict reignited, something Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer echoed.

Sir Keir on Saturday reiterated his call for a “further pause or further cessation of hostilities” so further work can be carried out to release hostages and send aid to the besieged Palestinians.

Speaking to the BBC during his trip to Dubai for the Cop28 climate summit, he urged both sides, while the fighting is continuing, to attempt to limit the impact on civilians.

Sir Keir said: “Too many people, innocent individuals, have lost their lives in Israel and across Gaza.

“We can’t go back to where we were just a week or so ago. We have to see this as a different stage.”

More than 80 people have been charged in the UK over alleged hate crimes and violence linked to pro-Palestinian protests since the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas conflict.

There has been controversy about those on the marches chanting the phrase “from the river to the sea”, which critics have claimed is antisemitic, while some attendees have been accused of showing support for Hamas.

The militant organisation is proscribed as a terror group in the UK and support for it is banned.

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