Kosovo: Deployment of British Forces

– in the House of Lords at 4:10 pm on 22nd March 2004.

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Photo of Lord Bach Lord Bach Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Defence, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Ministry of Defence) (Procurement) 4:10 pm, 22nd March 2004

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement made in another place earlier this afternoon by my right honourable friend the Minister with responsibility for the Armed Forces. The Statement is as follows:

"Last week we saw an upsurge in violence in Kosovo resulting in deaths within both the ethnic Albanian and Serb communities, as well as hundreds injured, including some KFOR troops. Although Kosovo is now calmer, the potential for renewed violence remains.

"The troops already in Kosovo were heavily committed in dealing with the situation. Commander KFOR therefore took the decision to authorise the deployment of his in-theatre tactical reserves to assist with the situation. NATO also issued instructions to reinforce KFOR with additional SFOR troops from Bosnia, including a UK company of 1st Royal Gurkha Rifles, a US company and a company from the Italian Multinational Support Unit (Carabineri).

"In the early hours of Thursday 18 March, NATO called forward the Operational Reserve Force Ready Battalion. The ready battalion role is one for which the UK has responsibility during the first six months of this year. The lead elements of the Operational Reserve Force Ready Battalion, approximately 150 men, left RAF Brize Norton on Thursday afternoon and landed in Kosovo late that evening. The vast majority of the Operational Reserve Force Ready Battalion of around 660 men has now deployed, with the 1st Battalion the Royal Gloucestershire, Berkshire and Wiltshire Regiment providing the core of the battalion group. There are now around 1,100 UK Armed Forces personnel deployed in Kosovo.

"The purpose of this deployment is to restore calm to the province and prevent unrest spreading to areas outside Kosovo, the type of task for which the Operational Reserve was designed. UK troops will conduct routine patrolling, the guarding of sites (such as the UN mission) and public order duties, as tasked by Commander KFOR.

"Calling upon the in-theatre tactical reserve, followed by the Operational Reserve, then Strategic Reserve, is the correct, graduated, and planned, response to a situation of this sort. Kosovo has been calmer over the weekend, showing that this was the correct decision.

"Further to the deployment of the UK battalion, NATO has requested that an element of the NATO Strategic Reserve Force, provided by a French battalion, also be deployed to Kosovo. NATO has also requested the deployment of the three 'standby' battalions that make up the full Operational Reserve Force. These battalions are provided by the US, Germany and Italy. The German battalion will be deployed to Skopje, Macedonia, in the first instance.

"It is for NATO to determine how long reserves will be required, but in terms of an initial estimate, and with the situation changing, we believe a sensible course of action is to plan initially for a deployment period of approximately 30 days. The situation in Kosovo now appears calmer, although it is still tense.

"I would like to inform the House that we have received preliminary reports of an incident involving British troops in Basra this morning. The House will understand that the information remains incomplete. Initial reports indicate that two explosions took place. We have reports of injuries to 13 British soldiers, although none is believed to be life-threatening. The process of informing next of kin is under way. It would be inappropriate to make any further comment at this stage".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

Photo of Lord Astor of Hever Lord Astor of Hever Conservative 4:14 pm, 22nd March 2004

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for repeating the Statement about Kosovo and about the distressing news from Iraq. We on these Benches hope that when the situation there is clarified the news will be a little better.

With regard to Kosovo, once again Britain is called on to provide the manpower to dampen the powder-keg of ethnic tension. We praise the troops for the speed of their deployment. Last week's violence between the Kosovar Serb minority and the dominant ethnic Albanians was surprising, swift and widespread. There is no doubt that that violence represents a major setback in the Kosovo peace process. The importance of the quick and robust deployment in Kosovo should not be underestimated. The stakes are high. The destabilisation of Kosovo would result in further and more serious bloodshed in the province and further instability in south-eastern Europe. That we cannot afford.

I have one or two questions for the Minister. What is the mission of the Operational Reserve Force? Will the Minister confirm that the troops have been issued with a full complement of personal equipment including enhanced combat body armour? Who will replace 1RGBW as the spearhead battalion?

According to the Serbia-Montenegro army chief of general staff's interpretation of the Kumanovo agreement—between NATO and the then Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1999—the Serbia-Montenegro army could be allowed to return to Kosovo in exceptional circumstances. Can the Minister clarify whether that is really the case and under what circumstances would that be allowed to happen? Finally, are Her Majesty's Government confident that the security situation in Bosnia is stable enough to allow the temporary reduction in troop numbers there? We are confident that the British troops will play a full and, as always, distinguished part in getting Kosovo back to normality. We wish them every success and a safe and prompt return.

Photo of Lord Redesdale Lord Redesdale Shadow Minister, Defence 4:17 pm, 22nd March 2004

My Lords, our thoughts too are with the service personnel injured in Basra and with their families and all those who at present are serving in Iraq. I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement made in another place.

I have no questions to put to the Minister. This is a difficult and evolving situation that is moving at some rapidity. It was started by the reporting of the tragic deaths of the three Albanian boys who drowned outside Mitrovica. It seems that the situation was stoked by the way in which both the local and the international media reported the incident. The Albanians desire independence, a feeling that has been brought to the fore by the continuing unrest—it is probably the root cause of the unrest.

Troops will be needed, particularly NATO forces, in the build-up to the elections in November. Although Kosovo is calmer now, I believe that it is important that a NATO presence is firmly in place and in control of the situation. There is a real likelihood that ethnic cleansing could take place in different parts of Kosovo. The professionalism and the ability of the British troops to calm down the situation is called for and we wish them the best of luck.

Photo of Lord Bach Lord Bach Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Defence, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Ministry of Defence) (Procurement) 4:19 pm, 22nd March 2004

My Lords, I thank both noble Lords for their kind and supportive comments. The noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, is right that the British troops are amazingly good at the tasks that they are undertaking and I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Astor, that the stakes are high and that it is important to act quickly and speedily. The best way that I can answer his question about the purpose of Operational Reserve Force is to repeat what our troops will be doing. Operational Reserve Force could be asked to do a number of things, but, as I understand it, their purpose in Kosovo will be to conduct routine patrolling, the guarding of sites and public order duties, as well as other tasks given to them by the commander of KFOR.

The forces are appropriately equipped and, regarding the noble Lord's last question about Serbia and the comments that have been made, there has to be an invitation by UNMOVIC—the United Nations Mission in Kosovo—which would only be in the most exceptional circumstances. Those circumstances did not prevail either last week or now. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Defence spoke to his opposite number in Belgrade, the honourable Boris Tadic, when the incidents last week were at their height, and the subject referred to by the noble Lord was not raised in the conversation.

Photo of Lord Biffen Lord Biffen Conservative 4:21 pm, 22nd March 2004

My Lords, I would like to ask a question deriving from the Statement on Kosovo and it would, perhaps, be appropriate for me to mention that my stepdaughter is a humanitarian rights worker in Kosovo and, at the moment, is in Pristina. Can the Minister assess the extent to which the local police force that has been recruited over the past couple of years has been able to play an effective part in the recent miserable troubles? Does the Minister agree that there can be no economic development possible in that country until there is at least some evidence of effective law enforcement? What is the current time-scale for future political development in Kosovo and to what extent will that be adjusted in the light of recent events?

Photo of Lord Bach Lord Bach Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Defence, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Ministry of Defence) (Procurement)

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his question and pay tribute to his stepdaughter, and others like her, who are carrying out such fantastic work at such a difficult time in Kosovo. As I understand the situation, there is a Kosovo police service that works under UNMOVIC and does important work, but which would not directly involve it in the type of incidents that we saw last week. The noble Lord is right that it is crucial that law enforcement must prevail if Kosovo is to play a successful part in the world. I cannot tell him much about future political developments, except that they are at a sensitive stage. There are ongoing discussions and talks at the present time, as the noble Lord would expect, but I have no timetable for their completion.

Photo of Lord Lea of Crondall Lord Lea of Crondall Labour

My Lords, we have heard criticisms in the press that a contributory factor in last week's events was that no progress was being made on the final status of Kosovo. However, our experience in Northern Ireland should be enough to show that we must be careful to avoid a premature attempt to define final constitutional status. The key priority must surely be to keep all the states in the region, including Serbia Montenegro, Albania, Macedonia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia, in dialogue about the economic and wider future of the west Balkans. All have an aspiration to join the European Union. Given that we must not unravel the thread of the states in the former Yugoslavia, will my noble friend welcome the creation in February of a parliamentary forum for the Balkans, which all of those countries have joined? We were told about that last week by the Serbia Montenegran delegation and we must do all we can to encourage that process.

Photo of Lord Bach Lord Bach Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Defence, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Ministry of Defence) (Procurement)

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend. He was kind enough to show me material about the programme to which he referred. Of course, from this Dispatch Box we welcome any coming together of the various groups and countries in that region if the result will be peace and the possibility of people leading ordinary lives. We welcome that particular example of progress and we would like to see much more.

Photo of Lord Hannay of Chiswick Lord Hannay of Chiswick Crossbench

My Lords, can the Minister say whether there were any intimations of such problems arising from intelligence? If the answer is that absolutely no one expected them—that is, the United Nations, NATO or the troop-contributing countries—as appears to be the case, is that not somewhat worrying given that one cannot be certain that it will be the last occasion that such problems will arise in that province?

Does the Minister not agree that, while it is legitimate and reasonable for the Kosovar Albanians to aspire to independence and to feel impatient that they have not yet made any progress, it would send an appalling signal if upheavals that led to a great deal of ethnic cleansing were also seen as a reason for accelerating talks on independence? The message has to be taken home to the Kosovar Albanians that their hope of advancing their ambitions is by talking to the Serbs at the conference table, not by expelling them from their homes.

Photo of Lord Bach Lord Bach Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Defence, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Ministry of Defence) (Procurement)

My Lords, I cannot answer the noble Lord's first question regarding intelligence—not because I know something and am unable to say, but because I just do not know what notice there was of those impending difficulties. If there was none, then I agree that it is worrying.

I agree with the noble Lord's second point. The international community will not and cannot tolerate inter-ethnic violence in Kosovo. Kosovo Serbs have to be allowed to return to their homes and live without fear. We and the rest of the world will continue to work for a stable, democratic and multi-ethnic Kosovo and we refuse to be deflected from that by recent violence. The timetable will also not be affected by the sort of violence that we saw last week.

Photo of Earl Russell Earl Russell Liberal Democrat

My Lords, while I agree with all of the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, will the Minister say what consultations have taken place between his department, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Home Office about whether the classification of Kosovo as a safe country for the return of refugees—and a safe country in general—should be suspended pending a more settled view of the situation? I hope he will remember that errors in this matter may cost lives. Regarding whether it was foreseen, I have previously discussed precisely that possibility with two people. One was a Kosovar waiter who had attempted to return home and found it too dangerous; the other was my noble friend Lord Ashdown before he took up his appointment.

Photo of Lord Bach Lord Bach Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Defence, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Ministry of Defence) (Procurement)

My Lords, I am afraid that there have so far been no consultations of the sort referred to by the noble Earl. However, such matters are, and will be, discussed by the Government in the usual way.

Photo of Earl Attlee Earl Attlee Conservative

My Lords, many people will be pleased that this task has been given to the UK Spearhead Battalion, a standard high-quality British infantry unit. Too often we have reached for highly specialised units and ignored the Spearhead Battalion that has been at a state of high readiness, and at some personal cost.

Photo of Lord Bach Lord Bach Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Defence, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Ministry of Defence) (Procurement)

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Earl. He speaks with a lot of experience and knowledge on these matters. I am grateful for his comment.