Bosnia

– in the House of Commons at 3:30 pm on 21st November 1994.

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Photo of Malcolm Rifkind Malcolm Rifkind The Secretary of State for Defence 3:30 pm, 21st November 1994

With permission, Madam Speaker, I wish to make a statement about events in the former Yugoslavia over the weekend and earlier today.

The House will be aware that following the recent attacks by Bosnian Muslim forces in capturing large areas of Bosnian Serb-held territory in the Bihac area of Bosnia, the Bosnian Serb army has been prosecuting a vigorous counter-attack in conjunction with Krajina Serb forces from over the border in Croatia. They have now recaptured most of the territory that they had lost.

In pursuing their attack, the Bosnian Serb army and the Krajina Serbs have launched a number of missile and artillery attacks against civilian population areas in the Bihac pocket, including attacks on Bihac town itself. Earlier last week there was an attack by aircraft launched from Krajina Serb territory. That increasingly serious threat to the Bihac safe area was exacerbated on Friday by a further air attack from Udbina air base in Krajina Serb territory, this time against the Bosnian Government's 5 Corps headquarters in Bihac using napalm and cluster bombs.

After consultation with our allies, the United Kingdom co-sponsored a Security Council resolution at an emergency meeting of the Security Council on Friday night, authorising the extension of the use of air power for the protection of the safe areas to the territory of Croatia. On Saturday, the Security Council passed two resolutions. The first, the United Kingdom-sponsored resolution 958, extends to Croatia the provisions of United Nations resolution 836, which allows the use of all necessary means to support UNPROFOR in and around the safe areas in Bosnia. The second resolution, 959, expresses the United Nations' concern about events in the Bihac pocket and condemns violations of international borders, particularly by Krajina Serb forces. It also calls on all parties to respect and co-operate with the United Nations protection force and show maximum restraint.

On Saturday, Krajina Serb aircraft launched another attack, this time on the town of Cazin, to the north of Bihac. Bombs were dropped and one aircraft crashed into an apartment block causing civilian casualties. On Saturday night, following an approach from the United Nations Secretary-General to the NATO Secretary General, the North Atlantic Council met in emergency session. In accordance with Security Council resolution 958, the NAC authorised the conduct of air strikes in response to attacks launched from the United Nations-protected areas of Croatia threatening the United Nations safe areas in Bosnia. Such attacks would be conducted in accordance with existing procedures for co-ordination with UNPROFOR, and the NATO rules of engagement in force in Bosnia.

The House will wish to know that, following a request to NATO from UNPROFOR, at 12 o'clock today a force of 39 NATO aircraft launched an attack on Udbina airfield in Krajina territory. Two Royal Air Force Jaguar aircraft took part in pre-attack reconnaissance and two further aircraft attacked the runway. I understand that the mission was successfully completed. All NATO aircraft returned safely. The attack was conducted in accordance with the principles of proportionality, timeliness and the need to try to avoid collateral damage and civilian casualties.

I believe that the House will wish to support NATO's response at the request of the United Nations. Let me assure the House that that action by NATO does not herald any change in our view that the only lasting solution to this dreadful conflict is a negotiated settlement acceptable to all the parties.

Photo of Dr David Clark Dr David Clark Shadow Secretary of State, Shadow Secretary of State for Defence

I thank the Secretary of State for coming to the House to inform us that British airmen have been involved in an air attack in the former Yugoslavia. I speak for the whole House when I say that we are relieved that they have come back safely. Opposition Members recognise that the action is justified, in accordance with United Nations resolution 958. Clearly, the Krajinan Serbs felt that they had found a loophole in the United Nations armour and we are glad that it has been closed.

The action was necessary on two main counts: first, to stop the killing of innocent civilians in the United Nations safe area of Bihac. If safe areas mean anything, that is the least that could happen, especially in response to napalm bombing. Secondly, we believe that it was necessary to maintain the reputation of the United Nations and NATO, for the lesson is that threats should not be made unless they will be carried out.

What consultations have been undertaken with the Croatian Government as to that bombing and any other action? Does the Secretary of State feel that that action and any subsequent action might draw the Croats back into the fighting? Clearly, none of us would want that to happen.

What plans has UNPROFOR to protect the Bangladeshi contingent in Bihac? We understand that the Bangladeshi forces are very lightly armed and are unable to defend themselves. Are the reports correct that they have only one rifle between four soldiers? Although we recognise that no British troops are in the immediate vicinity, are there any plans to move any of our troops from, say, Bugojna or Travnik over to Bihac? Will the Secretary of State always bear it in mind that whenever such action is taken, however justified, it threatens the lives of UNPROFOR soldiers on the ground?

We agree with the Secretary of State's final statement that, at the end of the day, the only way in which the problem can be sorted out is around the negotiating table.

Photo of Malcolm Rifkind Malcolm Rifkind The Secretary of State for Defence

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his support on this matter. I shall respond to the two specific questions that he raised. First, with regard to the attitude of the Croatian Government, although the Croatian Government would not have been familiar with the precise details surrounding today's attack, I understand that they gave general support to the United Nations resolution allowing the use of air power in such circumstances.

Secondly, the hon. Gentleman rightly drew attention to the problem facing the United Nations Bangladeshi forces in Bihac. There are no British troops there, although there are 10 British military observers in Bihac, but primarily it is a Bangladeshi presence. Not only are they lightly armed, but their rations have not been resupplied for some time and they have been living on emergency rations for quite a long period. That is a serious matter. United Nations force commanders are urgently considering the necessary resupply of United Nations forces in Bihac to ensure that they have proper food, equipment and protection. The United Nations has never hesitated to call for close air support if there is a direct threat to United Nations troops. I am sure that that matter will be at the forefront of the consideration of the United Nations commanders.

Photo of Sir Nicholas Bonsor Sir Nicholas Bonsor , Upminster

I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend for coming to the House and giving us that information. Is he able to reassure the House on two matters that I believe are of great concern? The first is that the Americans might take further action that would appear to be partisan on the part of the Muslim Bosnians and therefore jeopardise the safety of UNPROFOR forces. Secondly, if that occurred, will my right hon. and learned Friend ensure that adequate forces are available to make sure that we can get our people out safely if we are targeted by any or all of the warring factions?

Photo of Malcolm Rifkind Malcolm Rifkind The Secretary of State for Defence

I can assure my hon. Friend that any use of air power or any other action by NATO can be carried out only under the dual key arrangements. That requires the authorisation of Mr. Akashi, the special United Nations representative, and the United Nations commanders on the ground. My hon. Friend is correct to emphasise the importance of the safety of our troops. That, too, is the primary responsibility of the UN commanders. There is therefore no possibility of any action being taken by an individual country. NATO can operate only when requested to do so under the arrangements that it agrees and accepts as necessary.

Photo of Menzies Campbell Menzies Campbell Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

I offer my unequivocal support to Her Majesty's Government for the actions that they have taken at the United Nations and in the former Yugoslavia, not least because of the anxiety that many of us feel about the introduction of napalm and cluster bombs to the conflict.

Can the Secretary of State confirm that the operations that he has described were directed at denying the use of runways; and that, if necessary, the Government will support more operations specifically against aircraft or installations?

Photo of Malcolm Rifkind Malcolm Rifkind The Secretary of State for Defence

The details of the result of the attack are still coming through, but the information that we have at this stage is that much of the attack Was concentrated on the airport and runway facilities. The runway appears to have been severely damaged in five places. Clearly, that will have profound consequences for denying the use of the airfield in future to Krajina Serb aircraft. Breaching the no-fly zone was an important part of the justification for today's attack.

Photo of Mr John Wilkinson Mr John Wilkinson , Ruislip - Northwood

Clearly, Her Majesty's Government and the Governments of our NATO allies were entirely justified in taking the air action that they saw as necessary, because the Serb air force deployed in Serb-occupied Krajina was crossing an international frontier in prosecution of its offensive air operations, which is quite intolerable under the terms of Security Council resolution 959. Can the Government ensure that the Serbs realise that if there is any repeal of offensive operations of that kind, other bases, if used again, will be taken out, too?

Photo of Malcolm Rifkind Malcolm Rifkind The Secretary of State for Defence

Of course, that will be a matter for the United Nations and NATO to determine, but I think that the crossing of the international frontier, as my hon. Friend rightly says, provided an additional dimension of a sort that made the necessary response entirely justified. I am sure that any future incursions of that kind would invite a similar response.

Photo of Mr Tony Benn Mr Tony Benn , Chesterfield

Will the Secretary of State share with the House NATO's assessment of the American decision not to enforce the embargo, particularly in the light of his statement that that matter can be resolved only within the former Yugoslavia? What representations have been made to the American Government on the subject? As the United States is a member of NATO, what was the American response to those representations?

Photo of Malcolm Rifkind Malcolm Rifkind The Secretary of State for Defence

After the United States made its announcement, the Military Committee of NATO met to consider its implications. The committee concluded that the practical consequences were minimal and did not interfere with NATO's ability to carry out its task—although it would have to do that without the involvement of the two American ships. But the committee's overall judgment was that the announcement, while regrettable, had no practical consequences for NATO's ability to carry out its task in the Adriatic.

Photo of Mr Cyril Townsend Mr Cyril Townsend , Bexleyheath

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the Serbs were given every conceivable warning over several days, even to the extent of putting at risk UN forces in the area? Secondly, will he strongly condemn the use of napalm in such circumstances—a horrendous weapon at the best of times? Finally, has he seen the disturbing reports to the effect that the Bangladeshi battalion is grossly ill equipped, with, apparently, only one weapon for every four soldiers? Surely that gives the wrong signal; and should not the Security Council be doing something to re-equip them in due course?

Photo of Malcolm Rifkind Malcolm Rifkind The Secretary of State for Defence

I unreservedly agree with my hon. Friend about the use of napalm on this occasion. It appears beyond doubt that it was used in one of the air attacks in the Bihac area. That will invite universal revulsion, for the reasons that my hon. Friend has rightly given.

As for the UN and NATO response, there were three separate uses of air power by the Krajina Serbs. Because there was no legal basis for an attack on Croatian territory, the response had to await a Security Council resolution, which came about as a result of the United Kingdom initiative over the weekend.

I repeat that we share my hon. Friend's concern about the Bangladeshis. I know that the UN commanders regard it as an important priority to ensure that the Bangladeshis under UN authority are provided with all that they require to carry out their task.

Photo of David Winnick David Winnick , Walsall North

Is not the crux of the matter simply that if the action, which was fully authorised by the United Nations Security Council, had not been taken, it would have encouraged the Serbian warlords to carry out further air attacks? We hope that they will have learnt their lesson. Is not it part of the role of the international community to protect safe areas in the former Yugoslavia? Therefore, this action was totally justified. I am pleased that it has been taken and that the Secretary of State is accordingly reporting to the House.

Photo of Malcolm Rifkind Malcolm Rifkind The Secretary of State for Defence

I thank the hon. Gentleman. Of course, the United Nations always has a difficult task in that it seeks to be non-partisan in this awful conflict. The imposition of the no-fly zone has been an important achievement by the UN over the past two years, and such a flagrant violation of that zone justified today's response.

Photo of Sir Peter Emery Sir Peter Emery , Honiton

Will my right hon. and learned Friend reinforce, not just in the House but through whatever international means of communication he has with the Serbs, that any sort of retaliation against the UNPROFOR force will be dealt will absolutely and immediately? We must protect men who are sitting in white armoured vehicles around the borders of that country and make certain that their lives are safeguarded.

Photo of Malcolm Rifkind Malcolm Rifkind The Secretary of State for Defence

I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend. The Government have emphasised from the beginning of this operation that close air support or any other military means that may be necessary to protect UN forces, including British forces, will have our full support. I believe that that is also the view of other countries with forces on the ground in Bosnia. Close air support has been used in the past, and I have no doubt that it will be requested again if the circumstances, in the view of the UN commanders, require it to protect the men under their command.

Photo of John Hutton John Hutton , Barrow and Furness

While I fully support the use of force in these circumstances, may I ask the Secretary of State to say what consideration has been given to the designation around Bihac and the other UN protected areas of a heavy weapons total exclusion zone?

Photo of Malcolm Rifkind Malcolm Rifkind The Secretary of State for Defence

Under the terms of the existing authorities, it is for the UN commanders on the ground to determine whether they believe that the designation of any exclusion zone should now be extended to the Bihac area. One of the factors that they have taken into account over the past week or so is that one should designate such an area only if it can be effectively enforced on the ground as well as in the air. Clearly, the number of forces in Bihac give rise to some question as to whether that would be a feasible proposition. It is not a matter to be determined by anyone other than the United Nations commanders on the ground, who have the power so to designate if they are satisfied that that would have the proper consequence.

Photo of Lady Olga Maitland Lady Olga Maitland , Sutton and Cheam

Despite the heightened tension in Bosnia, will my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that he has no plans to withdraw British troops from that area, bearing in mind the fact that they are doing valuable work in protecting our aid programme, which is rebuilding hearts and minds in an important area?

Photo of Malcolm Rifkind Malcolm Rifkind The Secretary of State for Defence

That is indeed the case. British and all other United Nations forces are making an invaluable contribution, which has already saved hundreds of thousands of lives. The need for the UN presence in Bosnia will continue over the winter months. However, their presence there must be subject to the two criteria that we have emphasised from the beginning of the operation, which are: can they carry out their mandate; and can they do so without unacceptable risk to themselves? As long as both criteria are met, we agree that their presence is appropriate.

Photo of Mr Dale Campbell-Savours Mr Dale Campbell-Savours , Workington

The Secretary of State will know that UNPROFOR officials on the ground and western journalists with access to Sarajevo are alleging that United States personnel have been training Muslim militiamen and providing them with equipment. Will the Secretary of State deny that that is happening?

Photo of Malcolm Rifkind Malcolm Rifkind The Secretary of State for Defence

All I can say is that I have absolutely no reason to believe that those reports are true. I have seen the allegations in the newspapers. The United States Government have denied them and I have no reason whatever to believe that there is any truth in them.

Photo of Jacqui Lait Jacqui Lait , Hastings and Rye

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that to the outside observer there appears to be little desire by the combatants for a negotiated settlement? Will he give us a military assessment of whether the combatants have a desire for peace? Does he have any estimate of how much of the UN supplies are being given to the combatants rather than to their wives and children?

Photo of Malcolm Rifkind Malcolm Rifkind The Secretary of State for Defence

On the first part of my hon. Friend's question, I can tell her that there has been substantial progress at the political level, given the willingness of the various parties, apart from the Bosnian Serbs, to accept the Contact group proposals. The failure of the Bosnian Serbs to accept those proposals has halted that process at present.

My hon. Friend asks about the military situation. The events of the past few days have shown how improbable is a military solution to this conflict. The Bosnian Muslim forces broke out of the Bihac area some weeks ago and captured some 200 sq km of territory, and that was seen as a major advance. Of course, the Bosnian Serbs have now responded and are recapturing the territory that they lost a short time ago. It is a process of gaining a few square miles or losing a few square miles of territory, but without any strategic change in the overall position. No one can be certain whether that will remain the case, but all the evidence suggests that none of the factions involved in the war is capable of achieving all its objectives by military means.

Photo of Mr Peter Hardy Mr Peter Hardy , Wentworth

Does the Secretary of State agree that as runways can be repaired, it would be a good idea to ensure that they continue to be denied to forces that drop weapons such as napalm and put the UNPROFOR forces at risk? Until he gets an absolute guarantee that such weapons will not be used, will he ensure that JP233 is applied to the runways to deny their use for further outrageous conduct?

Photo of Malcolm Rifkind Malcolm Rifkind The Secretary of State for Defence

We trust that the Krajina Serbs will today have learnt the appropriate lesson that the breach of a no-fly zone and the use of aircraft to attack sites in Bosnia invites a strong and effective NATO response. We should like to believe that they will therefore desist from that activity. If they do not, they will invite further such action.

Photo of David Lidington David Lidington , Aylesbury

Will my right hon. and learned Friend assure my constituents, especially those stationed at RAF Strike Command and RAF Halton, that the Government will not send British airmen into action in the Balkans except where their objectives are both precisely defined and militarily attainable?

Photo of Malcolm Rifkind Malcolm Rifkind The Secretary of State for Defence

Those are important criteria, so my hon. Friend is right to emphasise that, when the use of air power or any other military power is advocated in Bosnia-Herzegovina, we must be satisfied that it makes military sense as well as achieving political objectives. We have some fine men serving in the RAF and the other services and we owe it to them to ensure that only operations that make military sense are contemplated. That has been an important consideration for both General Rose and General de la Presle in their role as United Nations commanders on the ground.

Photo of Angela Eagle Angela Eagle , Wallasey

Does the Secretary of State share my horror at the use of napalm in mainland Europe in 1994? Will he emphasise to the allies that the Serbs must be warned not only by the fully justified action today, but in no uncertain terms that they must not continue to use such barbaric weaponry to pursue any war? Does he have any idea where the Serbs obtained those weapons and whether they have any supplies of other unacceptable weaponry, such as chemical weapons, that they may use in the Balkans?

Photo of Malcolm Rifkind Malcolm Rifkind The Secretary of State for Defence

We believe that the use of napalm anywhere in the world is repulsive and must be condemned. I have no evidence that the Serbs in the Krajina area have access to chemical weapons, but we must constantly monitor the position.

Photo of Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Geoffrey Clifton-Brown , Cirencester and Tewkesbury

Can my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that while the UN resolution on the arms embargo is still valid, all members of NATO and UNPROFOR forces will enforce it, irrespective of the attitudes of an individual country?

Photo of Malcolm Rifkind Malcolm Rifkind The Secretary of State for Defence

The resolution requires all countries to respect the arms embargo. The resolution itself does not require individual countries to enforce it. NATO has accepted that task at the request of the United Nations and its commanders believe that they have the means to continue with it.

Photo of Malcolm Wicks Malcolm Wicks , Croydon North West

In supporting this display of resolution—even at this very late hour—in the era of Serb aggression, can the Secretary of State advise the House on where the orders to use napalm came from? If he feels, as he might, that they came from the headquarters in Pale, would not it be in order that, the next time napalm is used, strikes are made against the headquarters, not just against the base that carries out the orders?

Photo of Malcolm Rifkind Malcolm Rifkind The Secretary of State for Defence

At this stage, we do not have infonnation on where authorisation for the use of napalm may have originated. In addition to the Bosnian Serb forces central command, there are other Serb military leaders. It is by no means certain that those in Krajina come under the control or authority of the Serb commanders in Pale. It is a confused and decentralised system, and at this stage one should not necessarily draw the same conclusions as the hon. Gentleman.

Photo of Dr Norman Godman Dr Norman Godman , Greenock and Port Glasgow

Is not it the case that the American decision concerning the Bosnian arms embargo poses a formidable threat to not only NATO but, worse, our soldiers on the ground? Is it likely that other Governments may follow America's decision concerning support for the Bosnian Government against the Serbs?

Photo of Malcolm Rifkind Malcolm Rifkind The Secretary of State for Defence

I do not believe that the American action by itself will have consequences for the safety of our forces. Obviously, there is concern whether at some future stage a proposal to lift the embargo might be pursued and implemented. Clearly, that would have profound consequences for the UN's ability to continue in Bosnia. At the moment, we have no reason to believe that any other countries are contemplating reducing their current action in helping to enforce the embargo.

Photo of Mike O'Brien Mike O'Brien , North Warwickshire

Air strikes only take us so far—the advance on the ground continues. How serious is the UN about safe areas? Can the Secretary of State reassure the House that the UN will take whatever steps are necessary to ensure that safe areas remain so?

Photo of Malcolm Rifkind Malcolm Rifkind The Secretary of State for Defence

The UN has the authority to call for the use of air power or other military means in protecting safe areas. The judgment whether to do so is for Mr. Akashi and UN commanders on the ground, who will wish to take into account all the implications of any initiative that they might recommend. If a request is made, it must come from them.

Photo of Hugh Bayley Hugh Bayley , City of York

Two weeks ago, I visited the Tornado and Jaguar detachment at Gioia and the VCIO and AWACs detachment. I pay tribute to the morale and commitment of our armed forces there. Can the Secretary of State reassure the House that the Royal Air Force will be given whatever material resources it needs in terms of fuel, flying hours and spares to enable it to enforce UN resolutions, and that the RAF will not have to dig into resources earmarked for training to undertake that important work in support of the UN in Bosnia?

Photo of Malcolm Rifkind Malcolm Rifkind The Secretary of State for Defence

I thank the hon. Gentleman for the compliment and proper tribute that he paid to the Royal Air Force and to its work in Italy, where the Jaguars are based. He will recall that in July, when I announced the outcome of the "Front Line First" study, I said that we were able to fund a substantial increase in RAF training and in the facilities available to pilots and others required to perform tasks on our behalf. I can give the hon. Gentleman the assurance that he seeks.