Let me begin by making an apology. As the House probably knows, I have returned from the Berlin meeting of the European Council on Agenda 2000, which I think was the right thing to do; but we expect the negotiations to continue late into the night, and an RAF plane is on standby to take me back. I hope that the House will understand, given the circumstances, if I cannot stay until the end of the debate.
Last night, NATO air forces commenced strikes against military targets in Yugoslavia, supported by cruise missiles. The whole House will wish to salute the courage and professionalism of the British and allied crews that were in action last night, and will share the relief of their families over the safe return of all allied planes.
When he replies to the debate, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence will deal more fully with the details of the military operation. I will open the debate by explaining why that action had become necessary, despite our determined efforts to find a diplomatic solution through negotiation.
The decision to commit service personnel to military action can be taken only with the greatest reluctance. No one in the Government did not want to avoid taking that step; if it had been possible to find a way forward by any alternative avenue, we would not have taken it. It was with regret that we came to the conclusion that there was no longer any alternative. Every member state within NATO came to the same conclusion. The decision to hand over to the NATO commanders the power to initiate air strikes was unanimous.
Last night, eight member states had planes participating in the operation. Others supplied essential back-up. NATO has demonstrated an impressive unity and resolve. Our best prospect of securing our objectives is through maintaining that unity and resolve.
The solid basis for that unity is our common revulsion at the violent repression that we witness in Kosovo. Since March last year, well over 400,000 people in Kosovo have at some point been driven from their homes. That is about a fifth of the total population. In Britain, the equivalent would be over 10 million people. We have seen villages shelled, crops burned and farm animals slaughtered—not for any legitimate military purpose, but as acts of ethnic hatred.
President Milosevic has been given repeated opportunities over that year to demonstrate his willingness to accept any solution that did not require military action. In June last year, he was warned to stop the repression against the civilian population. He did. He stuck to his word for six weeks and then the killing began again in August. In October, he signed up to the Holbrooke package. He agreed to reduce his troops in Kosovo to the level at which they stood before the conflict began; to co-operate with Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe verification monitors and to halt military action. He has broken every one of those undertakings.
President Milosevic not only has more army and security police in and around Kosovo than he is permitted; he has double the number agreed under the Holbrooke terms. At the end of last week, the OSCE was reluctantly forced to withdraw the verification monitors because of its concern for their safety. They were not receiving co-operation from the Belgrade forces. On the contrary, in its place, they were facing increasing intimidation.
Worst of all, the repression in Kosovo has again been resumed. Two months ago at Racak, 45 men, women and children were murdered. They were executed at close range for no other reason than their ethnic identity. In the past few days, another 25,000 refugees have been forced to flee their homes. We have all seen the television shots of homes burning while women and children flee on foot, not knowing where they may find a safe refuge.
I very much regret that the people of Serbia themselves are denied the same opportunity to see those pictures, which provide the truth about what their Government are doing in Kosovo. This week, President Milosevic closed down B92, the last major independent broadcasting station in Belgrade. It is able to re-broadcast to other outlets in Serbia only through an ISDN line supplied and funded by Britain. Journalists from the station who have interviewed me in recent weeks have been arrested, or are hiding in fear of arrest. President Milosevic's repression in Kosovo is paralleled by his suppression of freedom in Serbia.
I understand fully the motivation of those hon. Members who would rather have seen the conflict resolved through dialogue and negotiation. I myself would have preferred that, but it is President Milosevic who has frustrated every attempt to find a solution through dialogue.
It is also President Milosevic who has prevented us from finding a solution through the United Nations. Three times in the past year, we have sponsored resolutions on Kosovo in the Security Council—resolutions that called on President Milosevic to halt the conflict, to pull back his troops and to admit the International War Crimes Tribunal to investigate atrocities. He has responded to none of those resolutions. It is President Milosevic, not NATO, who is challenging the authority of the United Nations.
No nation has done more to seek a peaceful settlement for Kosovo than Britain. It was Britain that convened and chaired the Heathrow meeting of the Contact Group which sent Dick Holbrooke last October with a mandate to negotiate a ceasefire. It was Britain which then made a leading contribution to the verification mission to monitor the supposed ceasefire. It was Britain and France that jointly chaired the peace talks at Rambouillet and in Paris.
As a result of those talks there is a detailed peace plan which is fair to both sides. It would provide Kosovo with its own assembly, president, laws and internal security. It would also provide full protection for the Serb minority within Kosovo, including an elected body to protect and promote their language, religion and curriculum.
We have reached out to both parties to make peace. I am sorry to say that only one party has reached back. The Kosovo Albanians promised at Rambouillet that they would sign the peace accords after consulting their people. When we met at Paris they kept their word. They signed up to the peace accords in full, including the commitment to demilitarisation by the Kosovo Liberation Army. They were willing to compromise in the interests of peace.
I regret to say that the Serb delegation made no attempt at Paris to reach agreement. They took an even harder line than at Rambouillet. My colleague Hubert Védrine and I took the decision last Friday to suspend the talks, because there was no point in prolonging them while the Serb side was not negotiating in good faith.
Even then, it was not the last chance we gave President Milosevic for dialogue. Dick Holbrooke went again to Belgrade on Monday to find if there was any way, even at that eleventh hour, to find a solution through dialogue. When I spoke to him on his return from Belgrade, he told me that he had never found President Milosevic more defiant or less interested in dialogue. President Milosevic even insisted that there was no fighting by Serb forces in Kosovo.
We have tried repeatedly, right up to the last minute, to find a way to halt the repression of Kosovo Albanians through negotiation. It was not possible, and the person who made it impossible was President Milosevic.
We were left with no other way of preventing the present humanitarian crisis from becoming a catastrophe than by taking military action to limit the capacity of Milosevic's army to repress the Kosovo Albanians. We will continue with this action until we secure that objective, but President Milosevic can halt it at any time by signalling that he is willing to pull back his troops, to honour the ceasefire he signed in October and to accept in principle the Rambouillet peace plan.
This morning some of the broadcast media have been interviewing voices from Belgrade complaining about military attacks on Serbia. It would be helpful if, for balance, they also reflected the views of the Kosovo Albanians, who have long been pleading for NATO intervention to halt their villages being assaulted by armoured tanks and heavy artillery.
I defy any hon. Member to meet the Kosovo Albanians, to whom I have talked repeatedly over the past three months, and tell them that we know what is being done to their families; that we see it every night on the television in our own homes; that in the region we have a powerful fleet of allied planes; and yet that, although we know what is happening and have the power to intervene, we have chosen not to do so. Not to have acted, when we knew the atrocities that were being committed, would have been to make ourselves complicit in their repression.