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

Alert me about debates like this

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.