Balkans (British Deployment)

Oral Answers to Questions — Defence – in the House of Commons at 2:30 pm on 29th March 2004.

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Photo of Rachel Squire Rachel Squire Labour, Dunfermline West 2:30 pm, 29th March 2004

If he will make a statement on the work of British forces in the Balkans.

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence

British forces are deployed in both Bosnia and Kosovo under NATO command to provide a safe and secure environment there. They are assisting the international community in creating conditions that will support eventual self-sustaining security in the region.

The purpose of the recent deployment of NATO's operational reserve force to Kosovo is to restore calm to the province and to prevent unrest from spreading to areas outside Kosovo. The 1st Battalion, Royal Gloucestershire, Berkshire and Wiltshire Regiment is providing the core of the battalion group. UK troops will conduct routine patrolling, the guarding of sites such as the UN mission and public order duties, as tasked by commander KFOR.

Photo of Rachel Squire Rachel Squire Labour, Dunfermline West

Will my right hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to the excellent and rapid response of our armed forces, particularly in dealing with the latest crisis in Kosovo? Does he agree that the announcement that Bowman has achieved its in-service date months ahead of schedule will be very good news for our troops in the Balkans and elsewhere, as it will improve their vital personal communications technology? Does he further agree that that is one example of where the Government have acted on lessons learned in previous Balkans operations and delivered with remarkable success?

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her remarks. Dealing specifically with the Bowman development, we made it clear in the lessons learned exercise on Kosovo in 1999 that there had been shortcomings in our tactical combat radio capability. The Bowman system is designed to provide a modern, secure successor to Clansman, and I am delighted to announce that Bowman has today achieved its in-service date ahead of target.

Photo of Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government)

Last week's announcement that further troops are to be sent to Kosovo only adds to the overstretch that our military already face. Can the Secretary of State give an assurance that he will look carefully at the tasks that our armed forces are expected to undertake throughout the world to ensure that that overstretch is not added to; otherwise, a time will come when it bursts completely, which would be unacceptable?

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence

First, there is no overstretch. Secondly, this deployment does not add to any apparent overstretch, not least because the troops that were sent were held at very short notice. High-readiness forces are available there for precisely this kind of deployment, as the hon. Gentleman should know.

Photo of Dr Jim Marshall Dr Jim Marshall Labour, Leicester South

I welcome my right hon. Friend's remarks about progress in Bosnia, and I am sure that we all welcome the improvement in its political and security situation. However, can he give any reasons why similar progress is not being made in Kosovo? Perhaps one reason is that NATO has not placed as much emphasis on the political situation as it should. Will my right hon. Friend comment on that?

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence

I do not entirely agree with my hon. Friend's conclusions. One difference between the two situations may be owing to no more than the passage of time. In both places, there were appalling incidents involving attacks on rival ethnic communities, but in Bosnia more time has passed and some of the wounds have healed, whereas in Kosovo, as we saw last week, those wounds are still very painful to the two communities. That is not meant in any way to suggest to my hon. Friend that we should not proceed in Bosnia and in Kosovo with a political and constitutional settlement that allows all the communities in the Balkans to live peacefully together.

Photo of Patrick Mercer Patrick Mercer Conservative, Newark

The Secretary of State will know that at the end of the year SFOR hands over to the EU in the Balkans. Can he tell us under whose command British troops will then fall—that of the EU or of those NATO forces remaining?

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence

The hon. Gentleman is usually slightly more precise than his question would suggest. As he will be aware, there has not yet been a decision by NATO to take the responsibility and to pass it across to an EU operation. The United Kingdom has indicated that, were that to happen, it would be willing to lead such an EU operation. As the arrangements develop and are decided, I will of course inform the House about the circumstances.

Photo of Mr Nigel Beard Mr Nigel Beard Labour, Bexleyheath and Crayford

Can my right hon. Friend say why it is proving so difficult to arrest General Mladic and Radovan Karadzic?

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence

The short answer to that is that they are not telling us where they are. I assure my hon. Friend and the House that determined efforts are being made, and will continue to be made, to bring both those men to justice.