The events in Kosovo were a tragic outburst of inter-ethnic violence, with 22 people killed and nearly 900 injured. The response of NATO and the European Union helped to stabilise the situation, and it was discussed at the EU General Affairs and External Relations Council last week. There are regular discussions with members of the contact group, including Russia, and with all European partners, including the new EU member states, on the future of Kosovo.
I thank the Minister for his reply. Does he agree that a particularly vicious manifestation of this conflict is the destruction of irreplaceable cultural heritage? Recently, 42 monasteries and Serbian Orthodox churches have been destroyed in Kosovo. What steps can be taken to protect such buildings, which are part of the heritage of us all?
I share completely the hon. Gentleman's protest about the loss of European cultural heritage. I visited the great monastery of Gracanica, and I know that our soldiers, as well as those from other NATO forces, have been deployed to guard churches. Equally, the burning down of the mosque in Belgrade was an unacceptable assault on the Muslim religion in the Balkans. I will visit Kosovo shortly, and I will make the point that that part of Europe's history deserves our special attention and protection.
I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. I have just returned from Budapest as a member of a delegation of MPs and peers who discussed this issue with Hungarian MPs and Ministers. We were left in no doubt of their concern, and that of other Visegrad countries that have troops in the region, about the escalation of the problem. Does he accept that the concerns expressed by Javier Solana at the EU summit about the political situation in Kosovo—I understand that the Russians will raise the issue at the NATO Council in three or four days' time—underline the need for us to be more proactive in seeking a political settlement in Kosovo?
I agree with my hon. Friend. It is a common view across Europe that for the last three or four years we have been chained to the wheels of events rather than guiding Kosovo and Serbia to a new political relationship and future. That relationship must be formed on the basis of common European values, maintain standards relating to the rule of law and democracy, and above all, show respect for minorities, other religions and the culture and communities of people who have lived there for many hundreds of years. The issue of Kosovo and the future of Kosovo and Serbia now require serious political thought and consideration.
Echoing that point, and given the recent announcement that the spearhead battalion is going into Kosovo with all the personal danger involved, may I ask what moves the Government are making at a political level to minimise the risks to our personnel that arise from the current political vacuum?
I have visited British troops on the ground in Kosovo, and believe me, they are not just doing the superb professional job that we all know they do, but winning hearts and minds and working with both communities. To be honest, I am delighted that British troops have been found to go there because I think they will add value in helping to stabilise the local situation, but ultimately a political solution must be found. Much more serious consideration must be given to that.
I join my hon. Friend in praising the actions and standards of British troops in Kosovo. I went there recently with the Defence Select Committee. Does my hon. Friend agree, however, that the rule of law has not yet been established, as Kosovo is effectively still being run by Albanian-led criminal gangs? As Bosnia demonstrated, the rule of law must be established before both democracy and investment can be promoted. Will my hon. Friend stress to our allies who still have national caveats preventing the closest and most effective working relationships between the civilian police and the military that priority must be given to removing those caveats?
My hon. Friend makes fair points, although I think that President Rugova and Prime Minister Rexhepi are decent and honourable men, and I would not want to refer to links between them and criminal gangs. It is all too easy to fling insults around. It must also be said that the closest possible support for the rule of law is needed throughout the region, including full-hearted co-operation with the international criminal tribunal in The Hague. If everyone in the Balkans made sure that those accused of serious war crimes, for example, were taken to The Hague, that would send a positive signal.
My hon. Friend is right to say that we need state authority in Kosovo. We need authority over property and investments, over the rule of law and over the bringing of people to justice. Some 189 people have been detained in connection with the recent inter-ethnic violence, and I hope that if a charge is approved they will speedily be brought before courts.
Does the Minister recall that throughout the 1990s Europe was grossly disfigured by ethnic conflict in the former Yugoslavia, and does he recall the initial collective failure to deal with that properly? Examples such as Srebrenica, where 7,000 men and boys were slaughtered, are a shaming memorial to that failure. Those events make the need to restore stability in Kosovo all the more urgent.
The Minister has heard the House's general view that political initiatives are required. Will he take this opportunity to state Her Majesty's Government's position on a political initiative that is sometimes promoted, namely independence for Kosovo?
The status of Kosovo is on the agenda, but I think it important for us to maintain our position, which is that we want the application of what I described as European standards in Kosovo. Violence must not be rewarded in any way: we must attach ourselves to that important principle. I also think that we need a new dialogue between Pristina and Belgrade. Some initial remarks in Belgrade were not helpful, although since then a commitment by the Belgrade city government and the Pristina authorities to rebuild mosques and churches has gone in the right direction.
As the right hon. and learned Gentleman says, we need a political solution to the problem of Kosovo. The international community must pay much more attention to that.
I do not think so. KFOR is a military operation. I have visited the area, as have many hon. Members, to see KFOR operations on the ground. It is a professional organisation and the outburst of violence happened fast and spread like bushfire. We have sent troops to help stabilise the situation. Once again, we could put even more troops in Kosovo, but what is really required is a political solution that must involve Belgrade and other partners in the region. I say again that it is not my intention to go through all the different options from the Dispatch Box, but the Government are now addressing themselves seriously, in collaboration with our partners, to tackling the problems.
Deeply regrettable though it is, is it not a fact of recent history in the Balkans that peace has rarely been achieved until the different ethnic groups of the population are separated, as in Bosnia? Do the British Government support an eventual solution for Kosovo that is based on those means?
Having witnessed ethnic cleansing carried out by terrorist and militia activity, I do not believe that that is a policy that the House should easily sanction now where peace prevails. The hon. Gentleman might care to visit Croatia, where he would find that some Serbs had returned, or other parts of the Balkans where different communities live in peace—just south of Kosovo in Macedonia, for example. The notion that Europe can grow and develop only on the basis of driving different communities out of where they have lived over many years does not sit well with common European values.