Kosovo

New Schedule 2 – in the House of Commons at 10:04 pm on 31st March 1999.

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Photo of Mr George Robertson Mr George Robertson Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence, The Secretary of State for Defence 10:04 pm, 31st March 1999

Just a week ago, my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister told the House that, in the face of rising violence against civilians in Kosovo, our armed forces and those of our NATO allies were involved in combat operations on the continent of Europe. That evening, Harrier aircraft of the Royal Air Force delivered the first of their attacks on military targets in Yugoslavia.

A week has now passed and the House has had regular reports. I gave evidence to the Defence Committee on 24 March. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and I opened and closed the full day's debate on 25 March, and the Prime Minister briefed the House yesterday. On Monday, when I visited RAF personnel at Gioia del Colle air base in southern Italy, I was accompanied by the shadow Defence Secretary, the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maples), and the Liberal Democrat foreign and defence spokesman, the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Mr. Campbell). I am sure, however, that hon. Members would expect me to provide an account of the latest position before the House rises for Easter, and by doing so at this time I can be as up to date as possible.

Some things have become clearer with the passage of these seven days. First, we were absolutely right to act when and in the way that we did. Anyone still unconvinced about the need to act should listen to the voices of the Kosovar Albanians themselves because they are making it absolutely clear that they welcome NATO action, and see it as their only salvation. Yesterday, at the press conference at the Foreign Office, one of the representatives of the Kosovar Albanians in London said: the people of Kosovo are fully in accord with NATO action and rather than claiming that NATO brought destruction to them, they only hope and desperately ask for an increase in NATO activity". The second point that has come out is that the violence being perpetrated against the Kosovar Albanians has been in preparation for some time. There is a clear pattern of organisation behind these atrocities. It is not just murder; it is premeditated murder. What we are witnessing is nothing less than a systematic campaign of destruction against a whole people just because they are from a different ethnic group.

To those who try to argue that the ethnic cleansing started after NATO's air strikes began, I say go and speak to the people of Poljance, Cigala, Lausa, Devicha Suma and the other towns and villages in Kosovo where Milosevic's thugs wreaked havoc before a single NATO bomb was dropped.

The international community can, and it will, take steps to bring those who planned this violence—Milosevic and his military commanders—to account. We know who they are, where they live, and what they are doing now. We are watching them, and there will be no hiding place. As my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and I have both made clear, information about the involvement of individuals in atrocities will be provided to the International War Crimes Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague. I am glad to report that Judge Louise Arbour has now issued an indictment against the man known as Arkan for war crimes in Bosnia.

NATO has now decided to increase the intensity of the air effort. Yesterday evening, following discussions in the North Atlantic Council, NATO confirmed its resolve to intensify and broaden still further the air strikes against Milosevic and his thugs who are repressing the Albanian population in Kosovo. We do not do so lightly. Last night's decision, however, gives Milosevic a very clear signal of our collective intent.

Yesterday, I gave my agreement to the stationing of five United States B-1 bombers at RAF Fairford, in addition to the 13 B-52s that are already there. These aircraft will add considerably to NATO's ability to strike at military targets supporting the killings in Kosovo.

Since the beginning of the campaign, NATO aircraft have done considerable damage to the Serb war machine. To date, they have made around 100 attacks, against more than 70 sites. NATO planes have seriously damaged the potential effectiveness of the Yugoslav air force. Four Mig 29s—the Serbs' most modern and capable fighters—and one Mig 21 have been shot down. Overall, these losses represent around half of their best operational and serviceable fighters. In addition, in attacks on eight airfields, at least seven aircraft and one helicopter have been destroyed on the ground. It is possible that others have also been destroyed.

Attacks by NATO aircraft have also substantially reduced the Yugoslav air defence systems. Eighteen surface-to-air missile sites and 16 radar and early warning sites have been attacked, as have 12 of the other 15 air defence facilities. These attacks have been so effective that the Serbs have been forced to move their remaining missile systems in order to protect them. While there still remains a threat to our aircraft, it is clear that good progress has been made.

NATO has heavily targeted headquarters and other static facilities. The headquarters of the MUP—the Ministry of the Interior police—and the headquarters of the Yugoslav army have been attacked. So have a range of support buildings containing stores of ammunition and other military stores. Those attacks will reduce the ability of the commanders to direct troops on the ground. It will also reduce the ability of troops to sustain their operations.

Royal Air Force Harriers have been in action since the first day of the campaign. On the night of 25–26 March, they attacked explosive ammunition storage buildings within a military barracks at Leskovac. Two of the three targets were successfully destroyed. On the night of 28–29 March, aircraft attacked an ammunition storage site in Pristina which stored ammunition for the Interior Ministry police. Three targets were destroyed.

Harrier aircraft were active on a number of other occasions, but, for various reasons, including poor weather and fire and smoke, they did not press home the attacks. It is our policy, and that of our allies, that aircraft should launch their weapons only when they are as confident as they can be that they will hit the target accurately, without causing unnecessary collateral damage or putting civilian lives at risk. Milosevic may randomly kill, but we operate to higher standards.

This pressure is having an effect. Milosevic is clearly rattled, as his so-called offer of last night demonstrates. If he really thought that the international community would entertain this worthless proposal, he knows now that it was just his latest miscalculation.

First, he miscalculated our intention to attack if he kept on killing. Then he miscalculated over alliance resolve and determination, which is now stronger than it was seven days ago. Last night, he miscalculated again. Milosevic's offer is simply this—NATO stops bombing and he only slows down the killing. He has not offered a ceasefire. He has not offered to reduce troop numbers in Kosovo to the levels that he himself promised in October last year. He has not offered guarantees of safety to returning refugees. He has simply offered to take out a few of the 40,000 troops if we stop the bombing and take off the pressure. This was not a peace move. It was a panic move.

So let me remind the House what Milosevic must do to stop the bombing. There must be an immediate and permanent halt to the killings, and, to show that he means it, there must be a verified withdrawal of Serb troops. He must sign up to a political settlement, including an international guarantee force which permits the refugees and displaced persons to return safely to their homes.

Of course huge damage has already been done. Lives have been ruined, villages destroyed, communities expelled. The British Government are heavily involved in supporting the efforts that are going on to tackle the developing humanitarian crisis. On Tuesday, and to the House today, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development described the Government's contribution to the international efforts to assist with the huge refugee crisis. I can confirm tonight that the first RAF Hercules carrying badly needed blankets, tents and plastic sheeting left Prestwick airport at 8 o'clock this evening, and is expected to arrive in Skopje in Macedonia at approximately 2 o'clock tomorrow morning.

Today, on our continent of Europe, the most horrific crimes against humanity are being perpetrated. They must not be forgotten; they must not go unpunished; and most of all they must not continue. NATO forces are determined to stop this grisly process and to ensure that those who have started it do not profit from it.

Mr. Milosevic is not addressing his own Parliament tonight. I imagine he would be deeply ashamed to do so. He is huddled in his bunker, calculating how he can possibly extricate himself from his predicament. It is time for him and his military commanders to think again. If it helps to make up their minds, I can tell them this. NATO's military action is going to strengthen, it will continue, and it will be increasingly painful. We are not going away before the violence stops and the people of Kosovo can go home and live in peace.

Photo of John Maples John Maples Shadow Secretary of State

In last week's debate on Kosovo, I think that we were all agreed that in President Milosevic, we are dealing with a very evil man. If anyone had any lingering doubts about that, they must have been dispelled by what we have read in our newspapers and by the truly tragic scenes that we have seen on television over the past few days of refugees evicted from their homes, sleeping in the open and having to flee for their lives. We welcome the aid that the Government are helping to organise and the role of the RAF that the Secretary of State has described. We continue to support the Government in their efforts to resolve this crisis and bring an end to the atrocities.

During the past few days, the Secretary of State has set out some objectives for the military campaign. I want to ask him some questions about two of them. One objective was to do very serious damage to Serbia's military capabilities and another was to stop the atrocities in Kosovo. The Secretary of State has reported considerable progress in achieving the first objective. He tells us that many of the SAM—surface-to-air-missile—sites and planes have been destroyed. Will he confirm that quite a bit of Serb air defence capability is still intact? Serb troops still have missile sites and can operate hand-held, shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles that are a particular danger to low-flying aircraft in the daytime.

There has been some success in that matter, but there has not been success in the second objective of stopping the atrocities. The atrocities plainly and brutally continue and the bombing appears to be having little effect on the ground. The Secretary of State has told us that he is convinced that the matter can be resolved by air power alone. Will he tell us whether there are any plans to alter the nature of the air campaign to achieve that? The problem seems to be that although sophisticated bombing techniques are very good at taking out large military installations, they are not much use in attacking individual trucks, tanks or the groups of soldiers perpetrating the atrocities in Kosovo. He has told us that there are additional B-1 bombers at Fairford and that they will help. I understand that there are also American JSTARS—joint surveillance target attack radar system—and A-10s in the area. Does he think that those new military assets will help NATO forces to restrict Serb ground forces and prevent them from committing atrocities in Kosovo?

I think that I am correct in saying that there were eight and there are now 12 RAF Harriers and about 240 people in Italy, plus tankers. Will the Secretary of State tell us whether there are plans to deploy any more UK air forces in the region? Will the NATO force in Macedonia—the potential peacekeeping force—be brought up to the planned 28,000 from its present strength of about 14,000?

The use of ground troops to fight their way into Kosovo has been ruled out by the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary, the Secretary of State for Defence and by the President of the United States. Can the Secretary of State confirm that there has been no alteration to that policy? Has he seen the announcement by the Russian Defence Minister that seven ships of the Russian Black sea fleet, including missile-carrying and anti-submarine frigates, are leaving their Black sea port to—in the Defence Minister's words— monitor the conflict in Kosovo". Those troops will have to pass through the Bosporus and I understand that that requires Turkish permission. Has NATO been consulted on that matter and does the Secretary of State believe that it presents an additional threat?

Today, the Prime Minister set a new objective for the military mission—that the test of success is for the Kosovars to be able to return home. Will the Secretary of State tell us whether that rules out not only any outcome that involves leaving Kosovo in Serb hands, but any partition of Kosovo? In last week's debate, we asked the Secretary of State whether the Government had a longer-term strategy for achieving Balkan stability. We express the hope that there is one. I should be grateful if the Government would address that question and if the Secretary of State would share his thinking with us, if not tonight at some other time.

I hope that the Secretary of State is right—that President Milosevic is rattled and that he is huddled in his bunker—but I fear that this is all going to be more difficult and will take much longer than the Government seem to think. I am sure that the whole House is thinking of our armed services in the theatre, especially those who are in danger. We wish them good fortune, great success and a speedy homecoming.

Photo of Mr George Robertson Mr George Robertson Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence, The Secretary of State for Defence

I welcome the hon. Gentleman's final comment. The whole House sends its good wishes and thoughts to those who are close to the conflict and those who, at this moment, may be in the line of danger, and he is right to speak out in that way.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that, although a lot of his questions are interesting, the answers would provide considerable information, not only to him and the House, but to those who might well be ranged against our forces now and in succeeding days. Therefore, in being reticent on certain subjects, I am not being discourteous to him or the House, but being sensibly prudent. I have given more information tonight than I have ever given before to the House of Commons so that it knows, as it goes into the Easter recess, what has been done.

I believe that most hon. Members recognise how much has yet to be achieved. There is no instant overnight knock-out blow that can be delivered. Some defence manufacturers might say that this bit of kit or that bit of kit is ideal in the circumstances, but modern conflict is not some sort of arcade game, in which you press a button and the enemy disappears. The fact is that we are up against somebody who is ruthless, merciless and unprincipled. He is engaged in systematic operations inside a tiny part of our continent and we have to stand against him. That will involve risks for many people in the area-—for the population who have been driven from their homes, and for our armed forces and those of the other 18 countries of NATO. We must recognise that.

We have been successful in the air campaign so far. Of course, the problems with weather create complications. They would not create complications for Milosevic, because, to him, bombing through the clouds—bombing blind—using dumb bombs would be a simple exercise, without any scruples attached to it. It is different for us and it will remain different for us. We are not in the business of creating civilian casualties, but interested only in precision attacks on military installations.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the forces currently present in Macedonia, ready to be part of an implementation force if, as we all hope, a peace agreement comes about. There are currently some 14,000 NATO troops there, and that is the number that the force will remain at until we are ready to move to the implementation stage of an agreement. We all send our good wishes to them. I hope that, in the next few days, some of them will be engaged in helping with the refugee crisis.

There is no change to the view that we have taken on ground troops. The decision was taken by NATO—by the NATO military authorities: 19 chiefs of defence and the Ministers who supervise their decisions. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the announcement by Marshal Sergeyev, the Russian Defence Minister, about sending a certain number of the Black sea fleet through the Bosporus. The Bosporus is an international waterway and access cannot be prevented. The Russian ships are on the high seas and it remains to be seen what they will do, but they have the freedom of the seas, just as we have.

We have made clear our objectives in political terms: a situation that will allow the refugees to go back, and to rebuild their communities and their lives. That will necessitate having an international peacekeeping force to allow it to happen. Milosevic is not going to get away with ethnically cleansing that part of the former Yugoslavia and then claiming that it is partitioned for ever.

The hon. Gentleman states the obvious, but it is worth stating that this action is going to be long and difficult. We took it on knowing that it was important to do and the right thing to do, and that the only alternative was to stand back and wring our hands, as people were slaughtered, murdered and driven out of the country that they believed to be their home. Yes, it is risky—nobody in this House will face those risks—but the hon. Gentleman, the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife and I met some of the people who will be taking those risks: they expect us to do the right thing, and that is what we will do.

Photo of Menzies Campbell Menzies Campbell Shadow Spokesperson (Defence)

I thank the Secretary of State for the opportunity to accompany him on Monday and meet some of those who are accepting in a matter-of-fact way risks that we here can only guess at.

Is the truth not this: that it is time now for steadiness and a calm determination to see these events through to the end? Does the Secretary of State understand that there is widespread support in the House for the summary rejection of the empty and cynical gesture made by Mr. Milosevic yesterday? Does he understand also that there is, if anything, even greater support for the robust reminder given today that those who are complicit at any level—military or political—in the hideous barbarity that is being enacted in Kosovo may pay for it by facing the war crimes tribunal?

As a condition for the cessation of bombing, the Secretary of State outlined the need for Mr. Milosevic to accept the deployment of troops on the ground. If Mr. Milosevic refuses to consent to that, he surely cannot, by withholding consent, exercise a veto over the deployment of troops on the ground if NATO considers that that is appropriate.

Photo of Mr George Robertson Mr George Robertson Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence, The Secretary of State for Defence

I appreciate the right hon. and learned Gentleman's words of thanks about the visit on Monday. The visit was conducted not in our interests, but in the interests of serving RAF personnel, who appreciated the fact that the defence spokesmen from the three principal political parties had taken the time and the trouble to meet them and to learn what was happening. We all came away with nothing short of huge admiration for the skill, commitment, ability and sheer bravery of those who are flying the Harriers, and who will, from tomorrow, fly the Tornadoes from RAF Bruggen.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman is right to highlight the risks involved, but he is also right to underline the determination that NATO expressed last night—and which we share—to ensure that the job is done. If this job is not done and if this sort of ethnic cleansing were to become the norm against which we could not stand, I, for one, would despair for the future of the continent for succeeding generations. Although last night's agreement was a crack in the wall of obstinacy that Slobodan Milosevic has erected and behind which he does his killing, the right hon. and learned Gentleman is right to say that it was no real offer and was a great disappointment to the Russians. It was insulting to Mr. Primakov, who had to deliver the message.

We are absolutely committed on the war crimes issue. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and I have made it clear that we will publicise some of the information that we have about some of those who have committed war crimes as a warning to others who may be tempted to obey the orders of ethnic warfare. I hope that the open indictment of Arkan will end the television interviews that he seems able to give with impunity. Someone who is indicted for war crimes should be returned to The Hague, not given star billing on television or in the newspapers.

An international force must be sent to that country because I do not believe the refugees will go back without it. That is why those parts of the Rambouillet agreement that relate to an international force remain so important.

Photo of Mr Donald Anderson Mr Donald Anderson Chair, Foreign Affairs Committee, Chair, Foreign Affairs Committee

I congratulate my right hon. Friend and the Government on the regular reports to Parliament since last Thursday, which have proved to be a model for our allies in their parliamentary relations. My right hon. Friend said that we had provided evidence to Judge Louise Arbour, the chief prosecutor at the International War Crimes Tribunal at The Hague, in respect of President Milosevic. It is clear that President Milosevic is guilty of ethnic cleansing on an horrific scale. He has broken every agreement that he has reached with NATO and with other allies. In those circumstances, we must recognise that he cannot be part of the solution.

Photo of Mr George Robertson Mr George Robertson Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence, The Secretary of State for Defence

I thank my hon. Friend for his comments about the reports to Parliament. It is the principle behind what we do, and it is right that we keep the House informed and on side. I know that not all hon. Members agree 100 per cent. with what the Front-Bench spokesmen are saying. There is unease and anxiety, and that is shared equally by those who are in charge of the military. However, we must do what is right and what is necessary.

My hon. Friend made a point about Judge Arbour and the international criminal tribunal. It will be for Judge Arbour to decide whether an indictment is arraigned against any individual. It is not for any politician to decide who should be the subject of indictment. The process is fair and judicial. When the indictments are served, it will be up to the rest of the international community to deliver on them.

Photo of Nicholas Soames Nicholas Soames Conservative, Mid Sussex

Does the Secretary of State agree that it is important that the political track is kept running in tandem with the military track? Does he further agree that if anyone should have much more influence on the Serbs, it is the Russians? Will he confirm that the Foreign Secretary will continue to impress on the Russians that, if they want to be taken seriously in international affairs, they need quickly to achieve their aim with the Serbs?

Photo of Mr George Robertson Mr George Robertson Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence, The Secretary of State for Defence

The hon. Gentleman is right on the first point. We must keep the political track running because only a political settlement will return peace and stability to that troubled part of the world. He is right to say that the Russians also have a stake in that. Out-of-control ethnic warfare in the Balkans is a danger to stability that is much closer to Russia than it is to those on the other side of the Atlantic, although NATO has accepted that challenge.

I am sure that the Russians were deeply unhappy with the offer that Milosevic made, which they took to Bonn last night. After all, they signed up to UN Security Council resolution 1199, which called for an end to the violence, withdrawal of the troops and a political settlement. I hope that they will continue to use what influence they have to try to tell that man that he must think again.

Photo of Mr Tam Dalyell Mr Tam Dalyell Labour, Linlithgow

Why does the Defence Secretary think that Belgrade families, the intelligentsia, trade unionists and others, 200,000 of whom demonstrated two years ago against President Milosevic, are this week demonstrating in similar numbers in favour of him? Can a people such as the Serbs be bombed into submission?

Photo of Mr George Robertson Mr George Robertson Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence, The Secretary of State for Defence

The people of Serbia are, by and large, decent people with a fine tradition. If they knew, or were allowed to know, what their Government are doing in their name, they would not countenance it for a moment. They are being lied to, so perhaps it is not difficult to understand why they are demonstrating in the streets. We have no contest with them at all. No bombs are falling on them; bombs fall only on the military installations and apparatus that keep the terror going. I hope that if my hon. Friend has the chance to get that message across, he will do so.

To those who might be listening in Yugoslavia, I say that there are internet sites that are difficult for the secret police to get hold of. Yesterday, 1,400 people hit the Ministry of Defence and Foreign Office websites. They are trying to find out the truth; if they do, they will not support Milosevic for very long.

Photo of Mr Martin Bell Mr Martin Bell Independent, Tatton

As someone who knows a little about the realities on the ground, I wonder whether the Secretary of State will consider, if not full military intervention, at least the establishment, by force if necessary, of a relief corridor or safe area to save the lives of some of the tens of thousands of Albanians in Kosovo which, without such action, will surely be lost.

Photo of Mr George Robertson Mr George Robertson Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence, The Secretary of State for Defence

I bow to the hon. Gentleman's knowledge of the area, but I have studied, along with the military commanders in the area, some of the possibilities to which he alluded. We shall continue to examine what we can do to help relieve the refugees, without ruling out those options. However, we should not delude ourselves that the time that it would take to put together a ground force organised for forced entry into Kosovo would not be exploited by Slobodan Milosevic in the bloodiest possible way. Instead of seeking the simple solutions, we must continue down a difficult road that the majority of military commanders still believe will produce results.

Photo of David Winnick David Winnick Labour, Walsall North

Does the Secretary of State agree that to blame NATO for the latest crimes and atrocities being carried out by the Serbian warlords makes as much sense as blaming the Allies for Nazi crimes in the last war? Is it not perfectly clear—as it should be to critics, in the House or outside—that the full responsibility for the mass murders, rapes and atrocities lies entirely with the dictator in Belgrade and his fellow murderous thugs?

Photo of Mr George Robertson Mr George Robertson Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence, The Secretary of State for Defence

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I get angry, with some justification, I think, at people suggesting that NATO air attacks started the violence that Milosevic was meting out to his people. Night after night on television, the Kosovar Albanian refugees themselves give ample testimony to the fact that the violence started before the NATO bombs began to fall, and that only the NATO air attacks are likely to stop them.

Photo of Crispin Blunt Crispin Blunt Conservative, Reigate

Can the Secretary of State for Defence name a single independent commentator who believes that NATO's military strategy will deliver the political objectives laid out by the Prime Minister to the House last Tuesday? If he cannot, will he undertake urgent consultations with our NATO partners to change the military strategy so that we can have the expectation, not just the hope, that we will deliver the political objectives that we all share?

Photo of Mr George Robertson Mr George Robertson Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence, The Secretary of State for Defence

The hon. Gentleman was in the Army some time ago. I say to him in all reasonableness that he may have a point of view, but I am not concerned with independent commentators. There are military commanders in this country with experience, a Chief of the Defence Staff with one of the most outstanding records of service in the British Army, who is now at the head of all of our defences, and 18 other chiefs of defence in NATO who all came to the same conclusion. Their political masters have also agreed that this is the correct strategy. We do not lean on them, but their advice is quite clear. Frankly, if it came to a choice, I would trust them rather than the average, so-called independent commentator.

Photo of John Austin John Austin Labour, Erith and Thamesmead

The whole House owes a debt of gratitude to my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for Defence and the Foreign Secretary for the political skill that has enabled them to ensure a unified international response to the atrocities that have been perpetrated by the Milosevic regime.

Last night, the Grand Committee Room was filled with Kosovars who live in London, many of them with families still in Kosovo, and some of whom do not know where their families are. I assure my right hon. Friend that they not only gave their full and absolute backing to the action that has been taken, but said that now is not the time for hesitation or pulling back from that action. I would add only one reservation. While accepting the view of the 19 defence chiefs that the use of ground troops at this stage may not be practicable, there was some concern that that had been announced to the world in advance—that may be one of the problems of living in a democracy.

Does my right hon. Friend share my view that, by his actions, Milosevic has forfeited any right or claim that he may have had to sovereignty over Kosovo, and that the time has come for the international community to consider making Kosovo an international protectorate?

Photo of Mr George Robertson Mr George Robertson Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence, The Secretary of State for Defence

I thank my hon. Friend for his kind words of commendation for my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and me. We are doing our best, but I cannot say that this is the easiest or least troubled period of our political lives. It is made all the more difficult by the complexities of the situation, or perhaps by the normality that has been the Balkans in recent years. We are doing what we believe to be right, and we are doing, as my hon. Friend says, in the words of the Kosovar Albanians, what is vital and necessary, there being no alternative.

I take what my hon. Friend says about ground troops, but there are those who say that without considering the implications: the time that it would take to assemble such forces, where those forces, properly trained and equipped, would come from, or how they are to fight their way into the country which surrounds Kosovo, and which has a unique topography. Those were the reasons that were pretty obvious to our military commanders and probably to President Milosevic as well. In a democracy, we are right not to hide those facts from the people or to raise false expectations of what can be done by that kind of military power. That is why we took the route that we did. I still hope and believe that it will produce results.

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham

The right hon. Gentleman has described what is happening in Kosovo as premeditated murder, and I agree with him. In response to the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick), he made it plain that he regards President Milosevic as the principal instigator of the premeditated murder, and I agree with that, too. Given that, will the right hon. Gentleman tell us what is his policy? Is it to make an agreement with President Milosevic or to arraign him as a war criminal?

Photo of Mr George Robertson Mr George Robertson Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence, The Secretary of State for Defence

The right hon. and learned Gentleman is a Queen's Counsel. It is not for me to arraign anybody on a charge of war criminality. It is a fact that is not known or appreciated by very many people that there is an International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. There is a prosecutor, and it is for that prosecutor and nobody else to assess the evidence and to make the decision about indictments. I have no doubt that she will consider all the evidence of what is happening today and the evidence that is being provided daily by refugees and by Governments, and come to a conclusion.

Photo of Andrew Miller Andrew Miller Labour, Ellesmere Port and Neston

In parallel with the increased intensity of NATO activity, will my right hon. Friend ensure that there is also increased intensity of activity in trying to communicate the truth to the people of Serbia? He has mentioned the use of the internet site, and obviously we can strengthen our radio communication. Will my right hon. Friend look for alternative ways of strengthening our message? It is important that people throughout Serbia understand the strength of determination of the House and of the NATO allies.

Photo of Mr George Robertson Mr George Robertson Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence, The Secretary of State for Defence

My hon. Friend makes a valid point. We are spending a lot of time examining how best we can get the truth through to Serbia. Serbia is not Iraq, distant from other countries. It is in the heart of Europe and the footprints of satellites and other communication systems should not leave it isolated from information. The internet is one way in which people inside the country can get information. Only this week, the Foreign Office and Ministry of Defence websites started to publish in Serbian, so we will get information to people directly in that way. The World Service performs its usual admirable task in relaying the news in an unbiased way and unaffected by propaganda. As my hon. Friend rightly recommends, we will continue with our efforts to ensure that the truth gets through. Milosevic keeps telling lies, we will keep telling the truth.

Photo of John Randall John Randall Conservative, Uxbridge

Earlier today, we heard a welcome statement from the Secretary of State for International Development about a package of aid for refugees coming out of Kosovo, including, I think, aid for Montenegro. Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that if we are giving aid to Montenegro, we shall not be bombing it any further?

Photo of Mr George Robertson Mr George Robertson Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence, The Secretary of State for Defence

Where Montenegro is part of the integrated air defence system of the former Yugoslavia, clearly we are driven to certain conclusions if we are to ensure that allied planes will be safe. Much more serious than that are the reports that appear to be coming out of Montenegro about the position of President Djukanovic, and the threats to him and to his position by Milosevic sitting in Belgrade. We treat those reports with the utmost seriousness. I would warn Mr. Milosevic—sitting in his bunker—that he would be ill advised to tamper with the democratically elected Government of Montenegro.

Photo of Alan Williams Alan Williams Labour, Swansea West

If we reach the stage, as the whole House prays that we will, where the insertion of an international peacekeeping force becomes a real possibility, and if the only stumbling block is the composition of that force, would my right hon. Friend be willing to be open minded on the composition, as long as its effectiveness could be guaranteed?

Photo of Mr George Robertson Mr George Robertson Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence, The Secretary of State for Defence

We have always thought that an international implementation force could include troops from beyond the immediate membership of NATO. The Stabilisation Force in Bosnia includes troops from Russia, Ukraine and a number of other non-NATO countries, so I would hope and expect that an implementation force in Kosovo would have a similar broad composition.

Photo of Peter Tapsell Peter Tapsell Conservative, Louth and Horncastle

Is it not sadly obvious that the right hon. Gentleman's statement makes no practical sense, even in purely humanitarian terms, unless NATO intends to send in a large army—which the experts estimate would have to be about 200,000 men—to occupy Kosovo and hold it thereafter? As he has ruled that out completely, and bearing in mind the experience, which the world saw, of the French in Indo-China and Algeria, and the Americans in Vietnam, does he accept that, even if we were able to occupy Kosovo, we would be committed to years and years of guerrilla warfare, in terrain that lends itself to that sort of attack, among a violently hostile people who have been resisting foreign occupation for 2,000 years?

Photo of Mr George Robertson Mr George Robertson Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence, The Secretary of State for Defence

The hon. Gentleman seems to be suggesting that if we cannot put together a force of 200,000, we do nothing, stand back and watch people being slaughtered. That is not a view that I take; nor is it the view of my military commanders. Although he has been around for a long time, and has been a Member of this House for even longer than I have, if it comes to his advice or the advice of the Chief of the Defence Staff, I do not have much trouble deciding which to take.

Photo of Alan Simpson Alan Simpson Labour, Nottingham South

In all the horror of killing and ethnic cleansing that is Kosovo, the Secretary of State will be aware of growing disquiet about whether bombing, and bombing alone, can deliver any of the objectives that he set out to the House. Will he give the House an assurance that if he were to be persuaded by the growing speculation that the presence of ground troops is the only way to make military progress, he would not act before the House reconvened and was told, in precise terms, the basis of a plan for such involvement, its limitations and its objectives and terms?

Photo of Mr George Robertson Mr George Robertson Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence, The Secretary of State for Defence

We are engaged at the moment in air assaults on military targets in Kosovo, which we believe are succeeding and which are already damaging the military capability that is repressing the Kosovar Albanians. We are confident that that will produce a result. I point out to my hon. Friend that, last night, President Milosevic gave an offer—it may have been spurious or worthless, but it was an offer none the less—to the Russians to carry to the European Union and to the international community. We are having an effect on what is his behaviour pattern at the moment. It is not enough at present, but the pressure will increase with every day.

My hon. Friend talks of disquiet. Of course there is disquiet about air strikes, which are one military mechanism that can be used. They are being used at the moment, but if anybody can come along and tell us a more sensible, more practical and better alternative that will quickly stop the carnage that is going on in Kosovo, let him do so. I have not heard one that is plausible.

Photo of Margaret Ewing Margaret Ewing Scottish National Party, Moray

The Secretary of State and I are contemporaries. We grew up believing that we would never see ethnic cleansing ever again in Europe. That was an aspiration. All of us share the anger at the behaviour of Milosevic and we all extend our support to the troops who are there in the front line, and to the various organisations, including the Department for International Development, which are working so hard to bring humanitarian aid to the refugees. The refugees make all of us deeply concerned about what is happening because we seem to be experiencing almost virtual reality as we watch the news broadcasts.

How will the Secretary of State respond to the letter, which I know that he received today, from Action of Churches Together in Scotland, which is united and deeply concerned about the fact that observers had been pulled out of the area? It is also worried about how the UN will be involved in future developments. Our deepest concern is to protect all the unprotected Balkan civilians. Will he respond to that letter from the churches in Scotland?

Photo of Mr George Robertson Mr George Robertson Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence, The Secretary of State for Defence

I have not yet received a letter from Action of Churches Together in Scotland, although I saw some reference to it in some of the Scottish media today. I will address it as quickly as I can. I understand the anxieties of the churches. However, an anxiety about taking out the verifiers is not well founded. The verifiers told us of the build-up of forces, and they warned the international community that the violence was escalating and was soon to become systemic. I think that I will be able to persuade them on that matter.

I do not know whether the hon. Lady goes along with the views of the national convener of her party; I can only doubt it. She represents a constituency with one of the biggest RAF bases in the country, and I do not think that she could subscribe to the sickening views of her party leader the other night. On the very day that our pilots were flying into danger and planning their operations in Kosovo to stop the ethnic cleansing that the hon. Lady quite rightly says that she and I are united against, her party leader told the people of Scotland that the answer was economic sanctions.

I do not think that the hon. Lady, or any other sensible person, believes that stopping the bombing and imposing economic sanctions at this time would stop the carnage. If she does not believe that, I hope that, in the interests of her constituents and the RAF personnel in her constituency, she will speak out and denounce the crazy views of her party leader.

Photo of Frank Cook Frank Cook Labour, Stockton North

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the Governments of Ukraine and Azerbaijan are insistent that they maintain a continuing strong and supportive relationship with NATO? Will he confirm that, despite the rebuke of Russian rhetoric and the reprimands from the Duma, the Russian Foreign Secretary Igor Ivanov is insistent that phase 2 of the strategic arms reduction talks be signed without delay? Will he assure the House that, unless the Milosevic Government accept unconditionally, and implement fully, the terms as proposed at Rambouillet, no gesture of abatement will be considered until phase 2 of the NATO mission has been fully prosecuted, so as to eradicate the large-calibre weapons and heavy armour assets that have wrought this inhumane havoc and to ensure that no repetition can be conducted on a similar scale of callousness?

Photo of Mr George Robertson Mr George Robertson Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence, The Secretary of State for Defence

My hon. Friend speaks with authority, as a vice-president of the North Atlantic Assembly, and we listen carefully to him. He mentioned the role of Ukraine. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary met the Foreign Minister of Ukraine yesterday, and the Minister had been in Belgrade to give a strong message. My right hon. Friend is in regular contact also with Foreign Minister Ivanov of the Russian Federation. There is no interest for any of them in allowing Milosevic to get away with what he is doing. It is a danger not just for the Balkans, but for the wider area that would be affected; ourselves to the west, and Russia and Ukraine to the east. I hope that that is a message which they will put powerfully to Milosevic in Belgrade.

Photo of Nicholas Winterton Nicholas Winterton Conservative, Macclesfield

May I thank the Secretary of State for the detailed statement that he has given to the House this evening? He has provided as much information as it is appropriate to give, and I know that the House and the people of this country are grateful for that.

May I associate myself with the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames)? It is clearly appropriate for military action to be intensified against Mr. Milosevic, the Serbian army and the Serbian police, but does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it is important to intensify the political negotiation involving Russia, Ukraine and other countries referred to tonight?

Photo of Mr George Robertson Mr George Robertson Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence, The Secretary of State for Defence

My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has pointed out to me that the Russians were extremely disappointed that, after six hours of discussion in Belgrade, this was all that Milosevic was willing to offer. As one who is not in the Foreign Office, I can vouch for how much my right hon. Friend has done in the past few weeks—for the hours that he has put in, the commitment that he has displayed, and his passionate search for an agreement that would avoid the bloodshed and any further violence that might prove necessary. He and the French Foreign Minister, Hubert Vedrine, deserve a vote of thanks. I do not think that they will look for it until we have a settlement, but no one is working harder than they are to achieve it.

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Labour, Islington North

Everyone must be well aware of the horrors of what is happening in Kosovo, and of the dreadful treatment of ordinary people there by the Serbian forces as a result of Milosevic's orders.

I was disappointed that my right hon. Friend's statement made no reference to the United Nations, or to any effort to persuade the UN to introduce a monitoring force with the possibility of a ceasefire. What urgent efforts will be made to contact the UN, to bring in Kofi Annan and to bring about a ceasefire, protect refugees and secure a long-term settlement guaranteeing the autonomy of Kosovo? Many people believe that the bombing campaign will not resolve the problem, and will land us with a long-term disaster.

Photo of Mr George Robertson Mr George Robertson Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence, The Secretary of State for Defence

My hon. Friend has a long record of campaigning against tyrants. Perhaps he will tell us how he would deal with this particular tyrant: we should all be interested to hear his practical proposals.

As for what my hon. Friend said about the United Nations, it was the UN Security Council which passed resolution 1199 last October, with the support of the Russians. That resolution called for an end to the disproportionate violence, called for the troops to be pulled out of Kosovo, and said that there should be a political agreement that all other parties should sign. It was the UN Security Council which, last week, considered a resolution from the Russians condemning the NATO action. That resolution was defeated by 12 votes to three, the biggest defeat of a resolution since 1993. It is the United Nations which is involved in the humanitarian emergency, and in delivering supplies that will help the victims of Milosevic's aggression.

Photo of Mr Michael Colvin Mr Michael Colvin Conservative, Romsey

Does the Secretary of State agree that, while it is vital for the NATO summit scheduled for next month to proceed, there might be some merit in postponing any decision on NATO's new strategic concept—as it is described—until the lessons of the Kosovo operation have been learned?

Photo of Mr George Robertson Mr George Robertson Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence, The Secretary of State for Defence

I have reached the opposite conclusion. I think that there is all the more reason for us to press ahead with a new strategic concept that takes into account the new rules that NATO is being expected to observe.

The hon. Gentleman is, however, right to refer to the 50th anniversary of NATO that is to take place in three weeks or so. NATO is in action now, and its organisation has kept together 19 allies. Without NATO, the Kosovar Albanians would be at the mercy of an unprincipled and unscrupulous butcher. NATO is our proving ground, and I believe that it will prove itself for the next 50 years as a result of what happens in the next few weeks.