HC Deb 14 January 1993 vol 216 cc1057-66 3.31 pm
The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Malcolm Rifkind)

With permission, I should like to make a statement on Bosnia.

On 15 September I announced that we would be participating in the United Nations operation to deliver humanitarian aid in Bosnia. To do this we sent to Bosnia a battalion group consisting of some 2,500 troops. Since November, they have been involved in escorting relief convoys bringing food, shelter and other essentials to Bosnian communities. I am pleased to say that this operation has succeeded in its aims. Our forces have been directly responsible for escorting some 147 convoys which have delivered 11,775 tonnes of aid. It is no exaggeration to say that there are many people in Bosnia today who owe their very survival to the presence of British and other United Nations forces.

At the time of the announcement of this deployment, I made it clear that our paramount concern was for the safety of British troops. This, of course, is still the case. The last few days have seen an increase in the number and seriousness of attacks on our forces. In particular, there has been the shelling of our base at Tomislavgrad, and then the killing of Lance Corporal Edwards in Gornji Vakuf yesterday. A few moments ago the whole House expressed its sorrow at this tragic loss of life, and we wish to pass on our condolences to his family. He was a brave man on a humanitarian mission who gave his life trying to help others.

In order to enhance the safety of our troops, I am authorising the deployment of additional forces to the region. These additional forces will be available, should the need arise, to reinforce our contingent in Bosnia at very short notice. They will be available to provide additional protection to British forces while they are involved in humanitarian operations. They will also be available to cover a withdrawal of British forces if that should become necessary. We are determined not to be in a position where we are unable to respond immediately to a significant deterioration in the situation.

My proposals are as follows. We shall immediately be sending a small number of extra specialist troops to join our contingent in Bosnia. They will include logistics experts and others who will make arrangements for the arrival of a larger force, if that should prove necessary.

At the same time, as a contingency, we shall be deploying to the Adriatic HMS Ark Royal, with a carrier air group consisting of Sea Harriers and Sea King helicopters, accompanied by two frigates and three support ships. A number of other units will be deployed on the carrier group: a light gun battery, a locating battery and a mortar-locating troop, with support. HMS Ark Royal and accompanying ships will be ready to deploy on Sunday and will take up station in the Adriatic. I should emphasise that there are at present no plans to deploy any of the units embarked to Bosnia itself, but we wish to be in a position to do so immediately should the need arise. We shall also be making arrangements for the possible move to the area of other units at short notice.

None of this marks any change in our policy in the area. The forces that I have described will be used to increase the protection we provide for our existing battle group as it carries out its humanitarian role. We believe that the provision of artillery in particular will enable us to respond to attacks of the kind that we faced at Tomislavgrad. We remain committed to sustaining our participation in the United Nations humanitarian effort if at all possible. These forces will not be used to intervene in the fighting between rival factions in the former Yugoslavia. Our position remains that it is not appropriate to intervene in what is essentially a civil war. Our overriding concern, as always, is to ensure the safety of our forces.

Dr. David Clark (South Shields)

The appalling pictures that we see nightly on our television screens have served to shake many of our fellow citizens. Many of us find it difficult to appreciate how neighbours who have lived amicably side by side for 45 years can now behave like animals towards one another. The Secretary of State is absolutely correct in reminding us that we are indeed witnessing a civil war.

For this reason we were gratified when in September the Government announced in the House their proposal, which the Opposition had advocated, to detach a group of British soldiers to protect the United Nations convoys carrying humanitarian aid to the stricken people in Bosnia. I am glad to have the assurance of the Secretary of State today that the sole purpose of our troops deployed in Bosnia is to provide that humanitarian aid. In that sense, we welcome the statement.

We have argued consistently that our soldiers should have all the necessary armour and the correct rules of engagement to protect themselves. Am I right in assuming that that is precisely what the Secretary of State has announced today? If so, we welcome what he has said.

Yesterday's tragic death of Lance Corporal Edwards brought home to us all the extreme and ultimate dangers involved. I can say unreservedly that we in the Opposition express our deep sympathy to the family and friends of Lance Corporal Edwards. We associate ourselves completely with what the Secretary of State has just said about that young man's valour and effort in bringing succour to those in need in Bosnia.

That tragic incident serves to remind us that our soldiers face dangers from all sides. Can the Secretary of State confirm that the area in which the incident took place is one in which there was fighting between Croats and Muslims? With a view to pointing up the dangers that our soldiers face, can he further confirm the preliminary assessment that the point at which the incident took place was outside the range of Serbian soldiers? Will the Secretary of State confirm also that in Bosnia there are approximately 70,000 Serbian fighters, a similar number of Muslim fighters and 50,000 Croats and that, tragically, all these are potential enemies of United Nations soldiers, who are there trying to assist the civilian population?

Given the reinforcements announced today, can we now be satisfied that there is sufficient helicopter support for our troops on the ground? Why are there no amphibious landing vessels? Is it true that neither HMS Fearless nor HMS Intrepid is seaworthy and, if so, why?

In the middle of his statement the Secretary of State indicated thaat an advance group of specialist troops is to be sent to "make arrangements … for a larger force". That suggests a change in the role of British troops. Is that contingency or strategy?

If we are to deploy extra troops, will other countries do likewise? Has the United States said that it will supply troops? Will any of the conscript armies of our neighbours be sent to Bosnia? There is a strong feeling that the British cannot themselves provide sufficient soldiers to do the job. It would be helpful if the right hon. and learned Gentleman would give more information on those points.

There is a feeling that we may be drifting inevitably towards a war which could last many years, and there does not seem to be a clear political objective. It all serves to remind us, as the right hon. and learned Gentleman did today—the message was clear from his statement—that a great deal hangs on the efforts of Lord Owen and Cyrus Vance and their peace proposals. We hope and pray that those proposals can be accepted and endorsed and that Karadic will be able to persuade his Parliament to endorse them so that, slowly, some normality can return to the former Yugoslavia.

Mr. Rifkind

I am grateful to the hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) for the welcome that he has given to our proposals. He is correct to assume that the purpose of the extra forces is to protect existing British forces in Bosnia-Herzogovina.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the tragic circumstances surrounding the killing yesterday of Lance Corporal Edwards. It took place in Gornji Vakuf, and he is right to say that it arose out of conflict between Croatians and Muslims in that town. There had been tension of that kind for some days. There is no significant Serbian presence in the vicinity. It is believed that the Serbians brought a mortar close to Gornji Vakuf a few days ago, but that was not involved in the incident yesterday which led to Lance Corporal Edwards' death.

The numbers that the hon. Gentleman gave of Serbian, Croatian and Muslim forces in Bosnia-Herzogovina are broadly correct, although obviously they are estimates, and comparable with the figures on which we work.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the use of helicopters. At present, Sea King helicopters are available for casualty evacuation, should that be required. They are based at Split, but could be used if necessary. The proposals that I have announced today would involve a significant number of additional Sea King helicopters on Ark Royal, when that is available in the Adriatic.

The hon. Gentleman asked about amphibious forces. We do not believe that such forces are necessary because, as he will be well aware, Bosnia does not have a coastline and Croatia is co-operating with any deployment that we require to Bosnia. So the need for amphibious forces is not relevant.

I can confirm that no change of role is proposed for the use of British forces in Bosnia. I said that explicitly in my original remarks, and I am happy to repeat it.

Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport)

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for repeating the assurance that our troops in Bosnia will be used only for the purpose of distributing humanitarian aid. Will he accept that that cannot safely be done if it needs to be supported by air strikes and field artillery? I must tell him, though it grieves me to do so, that if the Cabinet commits further troops for use in Bosnia it will not have the support of many hon. Members on this side of the House.

Mr. Rifkind

There is no suggestion on the part of the Government that it would be appropriate or sensible to contemplate a humanitarian operation which could take place only through the use of air strikes. That is not part of our thinking; nor is it part of the thinking of the United Nations.

We must envisage the possibility either that at some stage it will be necessary to withdraw our forces, in which case air cover and its early availability would be of considerable benefit, or that an individual incident might arise during the course of the activities of a convoy which could benefit from the early availability of artillery or air support. But I entirely endorse my hon. Friend's view that if it became clear that convoys could proceed only with the constant use of such forces, that would be totally incompatible with the purposes of the United Nations exercise. I am sure that the whole United Nations operation, and not just the British operation, would come to an end in such circumstances.

Mr. Menzies Campbell (Fife, North-East)

I join the Secretary of State in expressing sympathy to the family of Lance Corporal Edwards.

Is it not an inescapable conclusion of the right hon. and learned Gentleman's announcement today about reinforcements that, if they are necessary for the protection of our troops now, they were necessary for their protection from the very beginning? Does he agree that, although the primary purpose of the deployments that he has announced is defensive, Bosnian Serbs considering whether to accept the current proposals for a peace settlement would do well to appreciate that those additional military resources can easily be put to other purposes including—if necessary, and at the request of the United Nations—the protection of the Muslim community in Bosnia?

Mr. Rifkind

With regard to the first part of the hon. and learned Gentleman's question, clearly he did not listen as carefully as usual to what I said. I made it clear that we are not deploying the forces into Bosnia at present. They will be available for use if required. We hope that they will not be required and will remain as assets on Ark Royal.

On the second part of the question, it is important to ensure that the purpose of the continuing presence of British forces in Bosnia is to play a humanitarian role. The hon. and learned Gentleman appeared to suggest that he might have sympathy with a substantial extension of the role of British forces, but I believe that any significant extension in the use of ground forces would be fraught with danger. It would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to draw a fine line limiting the kind of involvement that we might then wish to contemplate. Ground forces are there for humanitarian purposes. That is clearly understood and easy to define. To go beyond that category would be to go into difficult waters indeed.

Sir Peter Tapsell (East Lindsey)

May I tell my right hon. and learned Friend that when I first visited Vietnam there were 600 American advisers in that country, but that when I visited Vietnam for the second time there were 500,000 American troops there? It has seemed certain to me from the moment that the Cheshire Regiment was sent to Bosnia that it would have to be either reinforced or withdrawn. I would strongly oppose any significant increase in the number of British troops on the ground, as would many of my hon. Friends, so I hope that if the present battalion is not safe with its present support my right hon. and learned Friend will give serious consideration to withdrawing it altogether at the earliest opportunity.

Mr. Rifkind

I understand my hon. Friend's concerns, and I think that I can reassure him by saying that today's announcement will mean that about 89 additional personnel will go into Bosnia. Those are the only people who will enter the former Yugoslavia. An additional 300 or so Army personnel will be based on Ark Royal but, as I have said, they will not be deployed in the former Yugoslavia unless they are required either to help supervise a withdrawal of our force or to enhance the safety of our existing force carrying out its existing responsibilities.

Mr. John D. Taylor (Strangford)

Does the Secretary of State realise that many of us feel that his statement is most alarming and shows clearly what we had predicted—that the Government are slowly being sucked into the middle of a civil war? Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman accept that many of us are totally opposed to further involvement of British troops on the ground in Bosnia, and that we decry the fact that he is holding two options open—one to support humanitarian efforts and the other to become further involved on the ground? Does he understand that we fully support the humanitarian effort, but that those on the ground involved in what he has described as a civil war perceive the British troops as representatives of a nation which is taking sides in the political argument in Bosnia? That puts our troops at a disadvantage.

Mr. Rifkind

I note what the right hon. Gentleman says, but he should follow the consequences of his own reasoning. He informed the House that he fully supports the humanitarian efforts of our forces. If that is so, he will agree that it is crucial to protect the soldiers carrying out those responsibilities. My statement today was intended solely to enhance the safety of those personnel, so I believe that the right hon. Gentleman should support the proposals that I have announced.

Mr. Andrew Hargreaves (Birmingham, Hall Green)

Does my right hon. and learned Friend accept that, although many of my right hon. and hon. Friends welcome his explanation that the measures are designed to afford further protection to our troops on the ground involved in the difficult humanitarian work, we might take alarm at his remark that those efforts should continue "if at all possible". We hope to have an assurance from him that "if at all possible" will not become "at all costs".

Mr. Rifkind

I agree with the point that my hon. Friend has just made. We believe that the humanitarian operation that the United Nations are carrying out is a worthwhile exercise. It is not simply the British forces but also the French, the Canadian and the Spanish as well as a number of other countries.

It is worth remembering that, so far, the humanitarian operation has succeeded in its objective of getting large amounts of aid to many tens of thousands of men, women and children who have been literally starving over the winter months. Clearly, it is desirable that the project should continue, but not "at all costs".

The criterion that we must apply is the level of risk to those who have been entrusted with responsibility for assisting the convoys. If we or, indeed, the United Nations came to the judgment, it is clear that the operation would cease. That would be right and proper.

Mr. Calum Macdonald (Western Isles)

I welcome the additional equipment being provided to the British forces in Bosnia, especially the mortar-locating equipment. Is the Secretary of State aware that when I asked a question on the subject in December 1992 the Minister of State replied that mortar-locating equipment would be of negligible utility in Bosnia because of the terrain? What has changed since December? Does that not indicate a lack of Government planning?

Mr. Rifkind

Mortars have been available to our forces in Bosnia since they were first deployed in November. At present we are examining the number of ways in which we can provide increased security on a contingent basis. It may turn out that that particular facility, like some of the others to which I have referred, may not be necessary. However, we think that it is wiser to have mortars available to be used if required rather than to accept a substantial lapse of time before they can be brought from, for example, the United Kingdom or Germany to Bosnia if they suddenly became useful. It is a useful precaution in the circumstances.

Sir John Wheeler (Westminster, North)

Can my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that in today's circumstances it is essential for our forces to be supported by the additional back-up if they are to continue to succeed in their humanitarian effort? In the event of the necessity to withdraw our forces, can he confirm that that can be achieved only if there are adequate supporting services to cover their withdrawal in difficult circumstances, with all the armoured vehicles?

Mr. Rifkind

My right hon. Friend is entirely correct. We must envisage that that may become a requirement and that we shall have a duty to ensure within the shortest possible time the successful evacuation not only of all our personnel but of the substantial amounts of equipment available to them in Bosnia. That would be a complicated operation on any basis. It is therefore useful to have available in the Adriatic facilities of the sort which would make the task considerably easier. The fact that such facilities are available at such short notice is a continued boost of confidence for those carrying out the tasks on our behalf.

Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield)

Is the Secretary of State aware that his statement leaves some sense of confusion in the House because we have had many assurances of caution and the repetition of humanitarian objectives? However, the commitment to further forces with an uncertain objective of either protecting or withdrawing leaves the House in some doubt as to the Government's objectives.

As the civil war in the former Yugoslavia has a history going back hundreds of years to the Turkish, Austro-Hungarian and Nazi occupations, and the murder of the Serbs by the Ustashi during the war, the fear being expressed is a proper fear not only for the safety of British troops, which is a prime concern of the House, but that what could follow from the further commitment to forces is an extension of the fighting and the reverse of humanitarian objectives—namely, that more people will be killed. In the circumstances, would it not be right for the Government to make a clearer statement of their objectives and let us debate and decide whether the House would wish to follow them?

Mr. Rifkind

I am sure that there is benefit in having as wide as possible a debate about the overall objectives of not only British but international and United Nations policy on former Yugoslavia. The Government's objectives for the use of our ground forces are clear and could hardly be clearer: they are to assist in the provision of humanitarian aid and to do so for as long as that aid is required, unless there is an unacceptable level of risk to the safety of the forces in question. That is a clear objective. We have made it abundantly clear—indeed, as clear as possible—that if that level of risk became unacceptably high, or if the humanitarian operation was discontinued, we would have to withdraw our forces in an orderly and safe fashion. We hope that that will not prove necessary for as long as the humanitarian exercise can bring much-needed relief to many hundreds of thousands of people.

Mr. Patrick Cormack (Staffordshire, South)

Does my right hon. and learned Friend accept that Bosnia is an internationally recognised independent state and that to call the conflict a civil war is a gross and distorting over-simplification? Does he accept that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and others, who have condemned the Serbian aggression, which amounts to genocide—200,000 people have been killed to date—have fairly and firmly pointed out where the blame lies? Will he confirm, as my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary did in the House yesterday, that if—as we all hope and pray—the Geneva settlement leads to peace, it will be, as my right hon. Friend promised us, an internationally guaranteed peace? Will he confirm that our troops will be able to play a part in, for example, ensuring that all heavy weaponry is taken away from all sides so that Bosnia can become a peaceful, demilitarised country, as its Foreign Minister made plain to Members of Parliament that he wanted when he came here yesterday?

Mr. Rifkind

The Government are clear that the Government in Belgrade bear a significant and heavy responsibility. That is why we fully support the actions of the United Nations in imposing economic sanctions and other measures with respect to that Government. However, we are also conscious that the fighting within Bosnia is, sadly, being carried out by Bosnian Serbs, Bosnian Croats and Bosnian Muslims. It is in that sense that I refer to the conflict as having many of the characteristics of a civil war.

We naturally hope that the present diplomatic efforts will lead to a successful resolution of some of the problems. If they do, and if there is a proper and effective ceasefire in Bosnia, clearly the United Nations will wish to give thought to what contribution it can make towards helping with that ceasefire. But clearly that is something for the future. At this stage we must hope that a ceasefire comes into existence. Until now that objective has not been realised.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

Do Ministers recollect the dire warnings of Julian Amery and others that the deterrent to Stalin's armies devised by Tito was the training of whole generations in guerrilla warfare? These are extremely tough, determined and skilled people. In those circumstances, what is meant exactly by "risk unacceptably high"? It seems to some of us that we withdraw only in circumstances where it becomes too rough for us. May I ask the rather nasty question whether it will be as easy to get out as it has been from the north of Ireland?

Mr. Rifkind

The hon. Gentleman's last point was an invalid comparison. Northern Ireland is a part of the United Kingdom. We have a responsibility to give protection and assistance to a part of our own territory and to our own citizens for as long as that is required. There is no comparable obligation with regard to our presence in Bosnia or, indeed, any other country around the world.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman's assessment of the ability of the inhabitants of Bosnia of all backgrounds to indulge in guerrilla war. We are conscious that these are tough people who have a strong tradition of fighting skills. That is clearly a factor that we must all take into account. It is the view of the United Nations, and a view with which we agree, that countries such as ours have an obligation to give humanitarian aid so long as that can be done without unacceptable risk to our forces. I accept that it is difficult to define that term with the precision that we might all like. We have seen since our forces first entered Bosnia that, fortunately—until the tragic events of yesterday—our troops were able to carry out their responsibilities without undue consequences. That was to be welcomed, but it is possible that it may be changing. We hope that it will not, but it is precisely because it could be changing that it is helpful and sensible to have additional forces available in the Adriatic if they should be required for the purposes that I have described.

Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith (Wealden)

In accepting my right hon. and learned Friend's assurances today, and on many occasions in the House, that it is not the Government's intention to alter the role of British forces in Bosnia, and while I understand that it is only prudent that they should have back-up facilities to enable them to make an orderly and safe withdrawal should the situation deteriorate, may I ask him to say a little more about the 90 or so troops with special qualifications who are to be landed in Bosnia?

Mr. Rifkind

The 89 personnel that we are proposing to deploy in Bosnia during the next few days consist of liaison officers, logisticians, tactical forward air controllers and some personnel who will be involved with observation responsibilities. There are a number of troops with responsibilities of that kind. Although they add up to a relatively small number, they will be able to supplement the existing personnel if future action of the type that I have described should be required.

Mr. Harry Barnes (Derbyshire, North-East)

To what extent will the extension of our activities in Bosnia be under the United Nations command structure and in conformity with United Nations resolutions? To the extent that that is so, will those activities not be different from the activities in Iraq which were described last night?

Mr. Rifkind

The bulk of the people that we are sending to the area will be deployed on Ark Royal in international waters and, for the time being, will remain under purely British command and control. Naturally, it will be desirable for the situation regarding any troops within Bosnia to be regularised in the normal way, but, as I said earlier, we hope that it will not be necessary to deploy additional personnel in significant numbers to Bosnia. So long as they are on Ark Royal, it is appropriate for them to remain entirely under British command.

Sir Dudley Smith (Warwick and Leamington)

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that the majority of people will agree with his view that, however horrific the circumstances on the ground, we should not be drawn into someone else's civil war? Is he aware, however, that since the end of last summer the Western European Union has strongly advocated an effective embargo and blockade of the participants in this ghastly affair? Does he not think that that is one of the avenues that we might explore further in an endeavour to achieve peace?

Mr. Rifkind

We are prepared to consider all constructive suggestions and I am aware of the important contribution that my hon. Friend has made, through WEU, to discussions on the issues. This is an ongoing situation and any constructive proposals are well worth examining.

Mr. Ieun Wyn Jones (Ynys Môn)

On behalf of my party, I express our sympathy for the family of the young Welsh soldier who was killed delivering humanitarian aid to Bosnia. We welcome any steps taken to protect troops who deliver that aid. May I challenge the Secretary of State, as he was challenged from his own side, about his definition of the conflict as a "civil war"? Does he not recognise that the conflict is clearly part of a campaign for the creation of a greater Serbia, part of a plan which started with the annexation of land in Croatia, and that unless it is stopped in Bosnia it may well escalate to Kosovo? When will the United Kingdom accept that there is international concern about this? Is it not time that the United Nations recognised that concern by taking steps to prevent escalation of the conflict, should the peace process falter?

Mr. Rifkind

The conflict has some of the characteristics to which the hon. Gentleman referred—I do not dispute that fact for one moment—but I think that he would be equally willing to accept that the Croatians have been seeking to control as much territory as possible in Bosnia—including territory which would not normally come under their control—and I have no doubt that the Bosnian Muslims, given the opportiunity, would also be seeking to do so. I have therefore said—it is a reasonable comment to make—that the conflict in Bosnia has many of the characteristics of a civil war, although I accept that that is not the end of the story. There is substantial external involvement and the Government have made it clear that they believe that the primary external responsibility must lie with the Government in Belgrade.

Mr. David Faber (Westbury)

I, too, welcome my right hon. and learned Friend's reiteration that there will be no change in the role of our troops in Bosnia and, furthermore, that we shall continue to do all that we can to be perceived as utterly neutral to all sides of the conflict in what is undoubtedly a civil war. Can my right hon. and learned Friend comment on the efficiency of the British troops on the ground at present, especially those in and around Vitez? Is he happy that they face none of the internal logistic and administrative problems that so plague the UNPROFOR troops in and around Sarajevo?

Mr. Rifkind

The efficiency of our forces is of a high order. At a much earlier stage in consideration of those matters we were concerned about the command and control arrangements envisaged by the United Nations for the operation in Bosnia. Subsequently, however, the present headquarters were set up with General Morillon as their commander and Brigadier Cordy-Simpson from the United Kingdom as the second in command. That has led to a much more efficient operation and I believe that the British forces and the command and control structures under which they operate are now working effectively.