HC Deb 02 May 1995 vol 259 cc154-7
2. Mr. Jacques Arnold

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on the deployment of British forces in Bosnia. [20077]

8. Mr. Winnick

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on British troops in former Yugoslavia. [20083]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Malcolm Rifkind)

We remain concerned at the escalation in the level of fighting and call on all sides to show restraint, to co-operate fully with UNPROFOR and to participate in the search for a lasting political solution. British forces will remain in Bosnia for as long as UNPROFOR can continue to carry out its mandate at an acceptable level of risk.

Mr. Arnold

My right hon. and learned Friend will be more than aware of the great pride felt by the House and the country in the humanitarian work of our forces in Bosnia. In light of the deteriorating situation, what does he think will be the point at which their humanitarian contribution will no longer be possible and the requirement for the safety of our service men will be such that we should withdraw them?

Mr. Rifkind

The contribution by British and other UNPROFOR forces has been humanitarian, but they have served to prevent an extension of the conflict outside Bosnia and Croatia to Macedonia, Kosovo and other parts of the Balkans which could have even more terrifying consequences. We shall continue to judge the British presence in Bosnia on the basis of whether the forces can carry out the mandate without unacceptable risk to their safety. One can never entirely avoid risk in a war zone, but they must be there on the basis that they are contributors to the United Nations mandate and not taking part in the war.

Mr. Winnick

What military action will be taken to ensure that the designated United Nations safe areas in Bosnia are safe from Serbian aggression? Is it not the case that, time and again, Serbian commanders have teased and threatened UN forces in Bosnia because they do not fear any sharp military response? That is basically the reason why Serbian aggression continues in Bosnia.

Mr. Rifkind

The proper response must be determined by the UN commanders on the ground, who must take into account both the need to demonstrate to the Serbs or whomsoever may threaten the safe areas the unacceptability of such behaviour and the paramount obligation to ensure the safety of their own forces. Only on the basis of both those criteria being met is it appropriate to contemplate the sort of action at which I think that the hon. Gentleman was hinting.

Lady Olga Maitland

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that we have a responsibility to not only the troops in Bosnia but the aid convoys which are organised by the Crown Agents from Sutton in my constituency? Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that the aid convoy drivers would be determined to continue their vital work regardless of whether they have the escorts?

Mr. Rifkind

I pay unqualified tribute to not only the UN forces but the civilians who, without exception, are exceptionally brave individuals, and who have carried out important tasks that have saved many lives. Clearly, it is for them as individuals to decide their continuing presence in Bosnia, but it is part of UNPROFOR's task to give them the protection to which they are entitled.

Mr. Menzies Campbell

Does the Secretary of State agree that the question of whether British forces can continue to fulfil their responsibilities without undue risk in former Yugoslavia will be one for the commanders on the ground? Does he further agree that any withdrawal will be so complicated and hazardous that it is inconceivable that UK forces will be withdrawn unilaterally?

Mr. Rifkind

The question of the continuing presence of UN forces must ultimately be a matter for the UN Security Council and for national Governments. Important political questions are involved and we cannot avoid the responsibility in that sphere, but the recommendation on any specific military action should be based on the professional advice of UN commanders on the ground. On the final part of the hon. and learned Gentleman's question, I do not envisage any unilateral action by the UK to withdraw from Bosnia. It is important that the UN should act as a single entity with regard to that matter.

Dr. David Clark

The House has repeatedly acknowledged the bravery and professionalism of British troops in Bosnia and it acknowledges the increasing dangers as the ceasefire is broken, but does the Secretary of State agree that having confidence in a plan to withdraw troops is the essential prerequisite to having the confidence to keep troops there? Will he assure the House that NATO has a well devised plan to extract troops if that proves necessary?

Mr. Rifkind

We have always recognised that it is possible that the UN force might have to be withdrawn, and NATO has already agreed to provide the cover that would be necessary in such a situation. It is an important part of any NATO plan that the Government of the United States of America have said that their forces would be available on the ground, along with other NATO forces, to help supervise such a plan. On that basis, one can say with confidence that there would be single command and control of any such arrangement, which would give the degree of confidence that is necessary to ensure its success, if withdrawal should prove necessary. I repeat that we hope that such a withdrawal would not be necessary, but that it is vital to have such a plan available in case it is required.

Mr. Bill Walker

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that all the evidence is that warring factions seem to be determined to escalate the war, and that, as he has said, our first duty and responsibility is to ensure that the UN force can carry out its assigned task? It was never realistic to expect the UN force to be an invasion force or a force to prevent war. A withdrawal could and probably will be dangerous. It must be properly planned for and managed, which will not be easy. Those who were calling for UN intervention should remember that when we have to withdraw.

Mr. Rifkind

My hon. Friend makes a number of valid points. At this moment, the main concern is inevitably with the Croatian offensive against the Krajina Serbs, and with certain reports that we have received that fixed-wing aircraft may have been used by Bosnian Serbs against the Bihac enclave. It is important that those incidents should cease forthwith if the overall position is not to deteriorate in a dangerous way.