HC Deb 12 January 1993 vol 216 cc759-62
13. Mr. Sweeney

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence how much food has been delivered by British troops in Bosnia since their deployment.

Mr. Rifkind

So far, 147 convoys have been escorted by British troops, delivering 11,775 tonnes of humanitarian aid.

Mr. Sweeney

Does my right hon. and learned Friend accept that the British troops are performing a valuable humanitarian role in Bosnia and does he consider that the present rules of engagement provide adequate protection for our troops in Bosnia?

Mr. Rifkind

I agree that the British troops are carrying out an enormously important role. The importance of their role is measured by the success of the vast number of convoys that have reached their destinations. We are equally concerned that British soldiers in Bosnia should have the means to protect themselves, and the rules of engagement have been designed to ensure that they are able to achieve that objective.

Mr. Winnick

Is the Secretary of State aware that, in paying a well-deserved tribute to our troops in Bosnia, one recognises that it would be intolerable if they were fired on, as has been the occasion, and were not in a position to retaliate? The British troops have a right to defend themselves in carrying out humanitarian aid and delivering relief supplies, which is undoubtedly supported by most people in Britain.

Mr. Rifkind

That is correct. Under the rules of engagement, they have the right to defend themselves. Indeed, in a recent incident near Tuzla, the 9th/12th Lancers returned fire on those who attacked them. They were perfectly entitled to do that and are entitled to use any of the weaponry at their disposal to protect their own lives or the lives of those for whom they are responsible.

Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith

Will my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that it is still the policy of Her Majesty's Government not to involve a substantial contribution of British troops in a combat role in Yugoslavia?

Mr. Rifkind

Yes, I can confirm that it is not our belief that it would be appropriate for ground forces to be used in a combat role. We share that view with all the other United Nations countries that are participating in Bosnia at the present time.

Dr. David Clark

If the British troops in Bosnia need more equipment to defend themselves, will the Secretary of State assure the House that he will ensure that they have further light artillery under similar rules of engagement so that they can perform their humanitarian role? Will he also make it clear that the reported build-up of British forces in the vicinity does not mean an inexorable drift into a bloody conflict without any military or political objectives, which could lead to an even greater loss of life than at present?

Mr. Rifkind

I can indeed confirm that we are not considering any extension of the role of the ground forces currently in Bosnia, who are there to carry out a humanitarian role. Of course we shall continue to monitor whether the equipment available to them to defend themselves is sufficient to meet their requirements. If we were to conclude that it was necessary to enhance the equipment available for their protection, we would not hesitate to supply it.

14. Mr. John Greenway

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a further statement on the role of British armed forces personnel in the provision of humanitarian aid in Bosnia.

15. Mr. Jacques Arnold

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on the current situation of the British forces serving with the United Nations in Bosnia.

Mr. Rifkind

During my own recent visit to the United Nations protection force I was able to see at first hand some of the work that British forces there are doing. By escorting convoys, and creating by their presence a secure atmosphere in which aid agencies can operate, our forces have ensured that areas that have not received aid for many months have now been reached with vital supplies.

Mr. Greenway

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that those who criticise the fact that it is always British and American armed forces who carry out the kind of roles being carried out: in Bosnia and Somalia should reflect that that is to the shame of the countries that are doing nothing rather than a valid criticism of the policy of the United Kingdom Government?

Mr. Rifkind

Yes, my hon. Friend is correct to emphasise that the United Kingdom can hold its head high as it is making such a crucial contribution in ensuring that food, medical aid and shelter reach the many tens of thousands of people who would be starving during the very severe winter months but for the magnificent contribution of our British forces in Bosnia.

Mr. Jacques Arnold

Will my right hon. and learned Friend remind himself of the fact that our forces are operating in very difficult winter conditions? Will he assure us that they will be properly equipped to look after themselves and ensure that their capabilities are maintained?

Mr. Rifkind

I can give my hon. Friend that assurance and tell him that we are considering whether any further enhancement might be required to meet that objective with even more certainty in the weeks and months to come.

Rev. Martin Smyth

I welcome the understanding that the forces will be properly equipped to protect themselves against winter conditions, but does the Secretary of State not accept that while a Portakabin type might protect against winter conditions, the type of hardened shelter that has been developed in Northern Ireland would protect them better from the shelling that they are enduring now?

Mr. Rifkind

I am very conscious of the fact that the situation has deteriorated significantly in the past week or so. For the first time, our forces have been subjected to what appears to have been a deliberate artillery attack from what appear to have been Serbian positions. We are urgently considering the proper response to ensure the fullest protection for our forces in Bosnia at the present time.

Mr. Jim Marshall

Is the Secretary of State aware that there is general acceptance by all countries with troops in Bosnia that the British troops are among the most efficient there? That being so, is it not inequitable that our troops receive less pay there than they would in Germany or Northern Ireland while the soldiers of other countries receive enhanced pay?

Mr. Rifkind

I believe that the hon. Gentleman's comment is based on a misunderstanding. The allowance that our forces receive in, for example, Germany is to enable them to purchase local goods—which are, of course, quite expensive. In Bosnia, all their requirements are entirely met by the Army. Where their families remain in Germany, they continue to receive allowances to which they were previously entitled.

Mr. Viggers

Does my right hon. and learned Friend recall that when our troops were first deployed in Bosnia for humanitarian purposes we reserved the right to withdraw them should they come under fire? Does he accept that the situation is deteriorating and that there is a severe risk that the United Nations forces might end up being the fourth side in a civil war? Will my right hon. and learned Friend keep anxiously open the option of withdrawing our forces and perhaps regrouping elsewhere in the area if that is deemed a safer way of maintaining peace?

Mr. Rifkind

I can understand my hon. Friend's concern. We judge these matters against two criteria: first, whether they can fulfil the humanitarian role for which they were sent to Bosnia; secondly, whether the level of risk that they face in the war zone is acceptable. We shall continue to apply those criteria.