HC Deb 13 April 1999 vol 329 cc19-33 3.30 pm
The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair)

I would like, with your permission, Madam Speaker, to bring the House fully up to date with events in Kosovo. There will be a debate in the House early next week.

NATO's actions continue. Our targets include the Serbian air defence system, the command and control centres of the Yugoslav army and special police forces, the lines of communication that Milosevic uses to resupply his forces in Kosovo, his fuel supplies and, increasingly, the Serb forces on the ground engaged in ethnic cleansing. The armed forces of 13 allies are taking a direct part in the NATO action. I am proud of the full role being played by the men and women of the British armed forces. They have the thanks of the whole House.

Our aims are clear. They were set out again at the meeting yesterday of NATO Foreign Ministers. They are: a verifiable end to all Serb military action and the immediate ending of violence and repression; the withdrawal from Kosovo of Milosevic's military, police and paramilitary forces; agreement to the stationing in Kosovo of an international military force; the unconditional and safe return of all refugees and displaced persons and unhindered access to them by humanitarian aid organisations; and credible assurance of willingness to work on the basis of the Rambouillet accords in the establishment of a political framework agreement for Kosovo in conformity with international law and the charter of the United Nations.

Once we have succeeded militarily we need to negotiate a political settlement based on the Rambouillet agreement. It must be a settlement that brings lasting peace to the entire region. Our action will continue until those aims are met.

There is no longer any serious doubt that the warnings that we gave about Milosevic and his intentions were fully justified. Half a million Kosovar Albanians have fled or been driven out of Kosovo into the neighbouring territories of Albania, Macedonia and Montenegro. In no small measure due to British efforts, those who sought refuge in neighbouring countries are now being looked after and have at least found shelter, food and safety.

I would like to pay tribute to the British troops in Macedonia who built a camp for some 30,000 people inside 48 hours; to the sterling work of my right hon Friend the Secretary of State for International Development in persuading the Macedonian Government fully to open the border; to British non-governmental organisations for their rapid response in getting relief through to the0 refugees; and to the tremendous generosity of the British people, who have already given some £10 million to the Kosovo appeal and added substantially to the £23 million committed so far by the Government. I should like also to commend the Albanian Government, who have been unstinting in providing a welcome to those fleeing from Kosovo.

Our concern is now for those still inside Kosovo. Milosevic's forces continue their ethnic cleansing, but at a reduced level. As a result of NATO action to date, the pace has significantly diminished. His tanks have to conceal themselves from NATO aircraft. His fuel supplies are running low. Some estimate that, taking into account all those displaced over several months, half a million or so Kosovar Albanians have been driven from their homes but remain within the province. Many have sought refuge in the hills and forests of Kosovo. We are looking urgently at all the options to assist them. Let me say this clearly: Milosevic is responsible for the welfare of those people. When we go into Kosovo finally, he will be held responsible for what we find.

Let me deal with some of the wider strategic issues. Some say that NATO should never have acted at all; some say, too soon; some say, not enough. However inconsistent those points, they all deserve an answer. Milosevic's action in Kosovo—the murder, rape and terror that he has visited on innocent people—provides ample justification for military action.

To those who wanted still more negotiation, I say that we struggled for a year to find a solution for Kosovo by peaceful means, despite Milosevic's brutality on the ground. We intervened only when the diplomatic avenue was exhausted, and when the hideous policy of ethnic cleansing was under way. Make no mistake: the brutality was planned well in advance. Even as the Rambouillet talks were continuing, Serb troops were massing in Kosovo and a new offensive was getting under way, with 40,000 troops and 300 tanks assembled. We now know that Belgrade was making detailed plans for ethnic cleansing as early as February.

Five days before NATO dropped a single bomb, Serb forces began a massive new offensive aimed at clearing Kosovo of its ethnic Albanian majority, wiping out their political class and even destroying evidence that Albanians had ever lived there.

To those who say that we should put in ground forces now, as part of a land force invasion of Kosovo, I repeat that the difficulties of such an undertaking, in the face of organised Serb resistance, are formidable. In the present circumstances, the potential loss of life among our service men and women, to say nothing of civilians, would be considerable, and in any event, assembling such a force would take weeks.

Every day, however, by air power, we are causing further damage to Milosevic's military machine: his air defence system is seriously degraded; half his front-line air force is now unusable; the roads and railways supplying his forces in Kosovo are largely cut; fuel is now in short supply, hampering the movement of his tanks and trucks; and artillery and troops on the ground are now being targeted and hit.

We make every effort to avoid civilian casualties, though some casualties will be inevitable in such action, and our attitude stands in sharp contrast to the utter lack of scruple of Milosevic towards the civilian population in Kosovo.

Britain and our forces can be proud of the role that we have played, in both the military campaign and the humanitarian effort. Day and night, our pilots are risking their lives to inflict defeat on Milosevic and our forces are working to help to alleviate the misery of the refugees driven from their homes and their homeland by his policy of ethnic cleansing; and day and night we are also preparing for the job that we have to do when our military objectives are met.

Today I can announce that we are sending substantial reinforcements for that purpose, with a second armoured battle group. At the moment, the British Army contingent in Greece and Macedonia consists of just over 4,500 military personnel. The remainder of HQ 4 Armoured Brigade and supporting elements are now being sent to the region—all are currently based at their home locations in the United Kingdom and Germany—taking the total number of UK military personnel in Greece and Macedonia to more than 6,300.

Let me make it clear, for the avoidance of doubt, that those personnel are being sent so that the UK can be in a position to play our proper role in the international effort to ensure that the refugees are able to return to Kosovo in safety.

As I said in my first statement to the House, this action will take time. Dictators such as Milosevic do not bow down at the first setback to their plans, but as the weather improves, his forces have fewer hiding places. When new weapons systems are available, such as the attack helicopters, no Serb unit in Kosovo will be able to destroy a village with confidence that it will not be challenged by more powerful forces.

We continue with diplomacy to back up our military action. Tomorrow in Brussels, I shall meet with my colleagues on the European Council and this meeting is being brought forward to include a session with the Secretary-General of the United Nations. The NATO Alliance has a long-planned summit in Washington at the end of next week. I and my colleagues will continue to remain in close touch with our Russian counterparts, who will have an important role to play when Milosevic is brought to meet NATO's requirements.

As for NATO, we must remain united and resolute. There can be no compromise on the terms we have set out. They must be met in full. We shall continue until they are. Ethnic cleansing must be defeated, and seen to be defeated. Milosevic's policies in Kosovo must be defeated, and seen to be defeated. I believe that we have a clear strategic interest in peace in the Balkans, but this is now military action for a moral purpose as much as a strategic interest. The barbarity perpetrated against innocent civilians in Kosovo, simply on the ground of their ethnic identity, cannot be allowed to succeed.

The conflict we now face in Kosovo is a test of our commitment and our resolve to ensure that the 21st century does not begin with a continuing reminder in Europe of the worst aspects of the century now drawing to a close. I urge the House to continue to give its unfailing support to the men and women of our armed forces and to the values they are striving to uphold on behalf of us all.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks)

We should never forget that in order to achieve peace and security in Kosovo, British service men now risk their lives every day. We should salute their courage and we join the Prime Minister in doing so. On the basis of the Government's assurances about the military situation and what could be achieved, the air strikes have been supported by the Opposition and, three weeks later, we continue to give our support. The Prime Minister will no doubt agree that for the campaign to be successful the strategy must be clear and consistent. I wish to ask him three sets of questions about how we will now proceed.

First, do the objectives of the action remain those that were set out at the start of the campaign? The Prime Minister said in his statement that the Rambouillet accords are still being treated as the basis for a political settlement. Does he believe that the Kosovar Albanians will now require something more than the degree of autonomy set out in those accords if they are to agree to return to their homes? Following this morning's meeting, can the Prime Minister set out in more detail the role that he sees Russia playing both in helping to reach a settlement and in enforcing it? Is it still his view that a peacekeeping force must be a NATO force? The Prime Minister has rightly described President Milosevic as a dictator and spoken of the need for war crimes investigations. How does he view the likelihood of us now being able to negotiate a political settlement with Milosevic?

Secondly, there is the central issue of the Kosovar Albanians. What information does the Prime Minister have on the fate of those who have not crossed the border and, in particular, about the terrible reports of massacres of young Kosovar men and systematic rape of Kosovar women by Serbian forces? What steps is NATO taking to break through the wall of propaganda and to ensure that the Serbian people are made fully aware of the atrocities being conducted by Milosevic and his thugs? The aid agency workers, many of them volunteers, are doing a fantastic job. Can the Prime Minister confirm that it is Government policy, wherever possible, to support the refugees in the region—as they themselves wish—rather than to move them to other parts of Europe? Does he agree that Macedonia needs more assistance, bearing in mind the large number of refugees who remain there and the implications that may have for its stability?

Thirdly, the announcement by the Prime Minister on the deployment of 1,800 more British troops puts the issue of ground forces into even sharper focus. He has said that there was no question of committing ground troops to an invasion of Kosovo in advance of a political settlement. More recently, he stated that he is keeping all options under review. Was the second of those statements intended in any way to modify the first?

Can the Prime Minister give the House any information about reports in the past hour that Serbs have attacked two villages in Albania and abducted three Albanians? Can he make it clear that, if such an incursion were confirmed, it would be treated with the utmost seriousness on both sides of the House?

As the Prime Minister has said, it is vital that this campaign is successful: it is vital for NATO and for the stability of the Balkans but, above all, it is vital for the Kosovar people.

The Prime Minister

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his support, and I shall answer the questions that he has set out.

The objectives remain exactly the same as NATO set them out. In respect of a political accord based on Rambouillet, as I have made clear, the present situation obviously changes the degree of trust—if there ever could be any trust—that the Kosovar Albanian people feel towards Milosevic.

However, it is still important that we understand that the basis of an agreement is as set out at Rambouillet.

I hope that Russia's role will be to play a part in bringing Milosevic to the terms set out by NATO. We have kept in very close contact with our Russian counterparts in the past few weeks: my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has been in touch with his counterpart; I have had conversations with Prime Minister

Primakov and I have been in touch with President Yeltsin. We are well aware of the need to emphasise to the Russians that we have no quarrel with them, but that the objectives that we have set out must be secured. In our view, the force that goes in must be NATO led. As has been made clear throughout, of course we want to ensure that that international force is allowed to guide people back into their homes in Kosovo, but its core must be NATO led. As for Milosevic himself, I do not think that it is a question of negotiating a settlement, but of him meeting the terms that NATO has set out. There will be no compromise over those terms; they will be secured in full.

In respect of information on the fate of the Kosovar Albanians, we obviously try to obtain the best intelligence as to what is happening inside Kosovo at the moment. In a sense, our concern has shifted. During the first period of time, our concern was for those people flooding across the border and how we could make provision for them. Our concern is now for those displaced inside Kosovo. As I indicated in my statement, we are examining every option for getting help to them. The most important thing is for us to make it very clear to Milosevic, to his generals and to people on the ground that they will be held responsible for anything that they are doing inside Kosovo.

As for breaking through the wall of propaganda, I agree that it would be good if we could do so. However, the media in Serbia are state run and there is no proper news service for people inside Serbia; they are given a wholly one-sided account of what is happening. I believe that many Serbian people would be utterly disgusted if they knew what was being done in their name to innocent ethnic Albanians in Kosovo.

I agree with what the right hon. Gentleman says about the refugees in the region. Macedonia is being given as much assistance as possible, as are Montenegro and Albania. They all need assistance and they all need to know that the international community is behind them in the efforts that they are rightly making to deal with the refugees.

In respect of ground forces, the situation remains the same as it has done from the beginning.

The right hon. Gentleman's final point was about the report—I think that it surfaced at lunch time—about Serb forces going into the border region of Albania. We are trying to get correct information, but my understanding is that there was an incursion into one village that was driven out by Albanian forces. It is another border incident and such incidents have been continuing for some time, but the warning given by NATO yesterday in respect of any attempt to invade the integrity of neighbouring areas remains the same, and our commitment to see it through also remains the same.

Mr. Paddy Ashdown (Yeovil)

I am grateful to the Prime Minister for his statement. As he knows, NATO has received steady and unwavering support from those on the Liberal Democrat Benches and will continue to do so.

The Prime Minister has said that President Milosevic is hurting. I imagine that he is, although I am bound to say that I have not yet seen any evidence that he has been forced to do something that he did not intend to do. I say that not because I believe that that situation will continue, but because we have not yet forced him to take such actions. Is it not the case that these operations still have a long way to go and that there will be setbacks, inevitably including casualties, among them no doubt unintended civilian casualties? As we regard those with deep regret, is it not proper that we should nevertheless remember that NATO is not targeting civilians, President Milosevic is? Is it not true that President Milosevic has, over the past year, systematically and brutally used the weapons of state and one of the most powerful armies in Europe to brutalise, rape and murder, and to remove Kosovar Albanians from their homes? Is it not correct to say that three quarters of Kosovar Albanians are homeless, and perhaps 700,000 at President Milosevic's mercy in the forests of Kosovo? Will the Prime Minister give an undertaking that NATO will do everything practical to assist those desperate people?

May I raise three specific points? First, we surely cannot expect Kosovo to remain under Serbian rule. That would be morally repugnant and practically impossible.

Secondly, while it would of course be better to send in ground troops with agreement, will the Prime Minister assure us that President Milosevic cannot have a veto on whether or not we send in ground troops? To give the ethnic cleanser a veto over whether those who have been ethnic cleansed may return would be totally unacceptable.

Thirdly, will the Prime Minister tell us what exactly is meant by a phrase being used by the Ministry of Defence, that ground troops may be used in a "permissive environment"? Does that mean when the risks are permissible? Or does it mean when President Milosevic permits? If it means the former, it is perfectly understandable. If it means the latter, it is intolerable.

The Prime Minister

First, on the air strike campaign against Milosevic, we must be aware of two risks—overstating the case and understating it. It is true that we have not yet secured our objectives. That is why the action continues, and it will continue until we do achieve them.

It would be a severe mistake, however, to say that no damage is being done to Milosevic, or that he is not hurting as a result of the campaign. Enormous damage is being done: half his aircraft are unusable, his fuel supplies are extremely low, a huge range of targets has been hit all over Serbia and Kosovo, and his lines of communication and supply are largely down. We are able, particularly as the weather clears, directly to target his troops on the ground. British forces have been part of the sorties that have been successful in that regard.

We must be persistent and patient if we are to see this through, and we have those qualities. I agree with what the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) said about civilians: we will do everything that we can for people inside Kosovo, consistent with the effectiveness of our action.

The right hon. Gentleman asked three specific questions. On the status of Kosovo, I have said what I have said, and people will understand how much more difficult the position becomes as the world sees exactly what has happened to the ethnic Albanian people in Kosovo. It is important to recognise that Rambouillet sorted a lot of potential problems about how a long-term settlement would work. We are carefully considering how that could fit into an overall settlement of stability and peace in the Balkan region. All those matters are being considered in detail.

On ground forces, there is no question of Milosevic having a veto. He has no veto over what we do. However, there is a difference between a land force invasion meeting organised resistance in highly difficult circumstances and a force that goes in to allow people to return to their homes in Kosovo.

The right hon. Gentleman asked me finally about the circumstances in which we use ground forces. I have set out those circumstances clearly. However, sometimes, when I read our newspapers, I fear people may think that all the options are not constantly considered, reviewed and worked on. They are worked on all the time. We have advanced our plans and proposals because we believe that they are the best way forward and the most secure way in which to achieve our objectives.

It is not possible for us—nor should it be expected of us—to go into every last detail of military tactics, strategy and capability when we are trying to conduct a campaign. I am standing in the House of Commons to answer questions, and I hope to give as much information as I possibly can. In Belgrade, there is no Parliament in which Milosevic is being questioned. He is giving no television interviews, and no interviewers are putting questions to his generals about how to proceed. That is one of the great differences between a democracy and a dictatorship, and long may it remain so. Without in any way taking away from what I have already said—I have set out clearly our position on ground forces—it is important that it is recognised that we have considered all the right options, and I genuinely believe that the strategy that we are pursuing is the right strategy for us and for the Kosovar Albanians.

Mr. Donald Anderson (Swansea, East)

Our own forces and those of our NATO allies deserve our full support. My right hon. Friend has properly said that it would take several weeks before a credible ground force could be assembled. Could he tell the House what is the current state of debate within NATO on training and arming the Kosovo Liberation Army, which knows the terrain and which, in the interim, could harry the Serb forces?

The Prime Minister

Our position on training and arming the KLA remains as it has been—we are not in favour of doing so, not least because of the UN embargo that is in place. We have no plans to change that.

Mr. Tom King (Bridgwater)

Does the Prime Minister recall saying in his statement that the action will continue? I am sure that almost all hon. Members recognise that it is likely to be quite a long haul. During that long haul, we shall need bases and secure lines of supply. In that context, may I reinforce the comments made about the critical importance of Macedonia and Albania? It now appears that Hungary is moving into the front line as the newest member of NATO, finding itself as a possible supply route to avoid the sanctions which are leading to shortages of fuel and other things. These countries will become absolutely critical if our forces and bases and our ability to provide humanitarian help are to continue.

In connection with the Russian situation, while the Prime Minister pointed out the difficulties of combating Milosevic's propaganda, I do not believe that the Russian people have any sympathy for fascism, fascist brutality and ethnic cleansing on this scale. Not propaganda but getting the truth across as widely as we can through a number of countries which are in a position to help in this respect is equally critical.

The Prime Minister

I agree with both those points, and I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his support. In relation to the bases of supply and communication, we are taking precisely the action that he outlined. What he says about Russia is correct. The Russian people fought in the second world war against the forces of fascism and racism. It is important, as we try to do all the time, to bring home to them and, indeed, so far as we can, to the Serbian people, the fact that our quarrel is not with them, but with the dictator who is carrying out a policy that all decent people, whether Russian, Serbian or of any other nationality, should abhor.

Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield)

If the air war goes on for weeks, months and even longer, with all the death and destruction that it causes, what contribution does the Prime Minister think that it will make to long-term peace and stability in the Balkans?

The Prime Minister

First, the death and destruction is being wrought by Milosevic on innocent Kosovar Albanian people. He is the person who began this policy of ethnic cleansing; we are trying to put a stop to it. My right hon. Friend asks me what contribution we will make. The contribution that we will make is to stop it. That is something that I would have hoped he would support.

Sir John Stanley (Tonbridge and Malling)

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that any partition of Kosovo would be a wholly unacceptable outcome of the barbaric ethnic cleansing that is taking place?

The Prime Minister

I agree with that entirely.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Is it not of interest that when the refugees, many of whom have been terrorised out of their homes, are questioned, they put no blame on the NATO bombing, but blame those who are responsible—the murderers and rapists ordered by Milosevic and his fellow criminals? Is it not also of interest that when people in Serbia itself—in Belgrade and other cities and towns—are asked by British journalists about what is happening in Kosovo, they either do not know or deny the ethnic cleansing, which was the very reason for NATO's intervention in the first place? Does not that illustrate the fact that those people are being kept in the dark by the state-controlled television and media in Serbia?

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend is entirely right. The refugees who have gone over the border and those—in so far as we can communicate with them—who are still inside Kosovo have made it quite clear to us that they support the NATO campaign, want it to go on and, indeed, want it to intensify because they know that that is their only chance of returning to their homes in peace.

What my hon. Friend says about people in Serbia is of course right. We can give anyone who wishes copies of the read-out of the Serbian 90-minute evening news bulletins, but they will bear absolutely no relationship to anything that is happening in Kosovo.

Mr. Martin Bell (Tatton)

It is clear that we are in the presence of the greatest war crimes in Europe for more

than half a century—genocide, ethnic cleansing, forced marches and the mass expulsion of people from their homes—yet we continue to respond with air power, and air power alone. I wonder whether the Prime Minister can give a single example of air power alone achieving a decisive military objective. Is it not true that circumstances on the ground can be changed only by boots on the ground? Do we not have a moral as well as a military imperative to go for a ground intervention—whether opposed or unopposed?

The Prime Minister

On the air campaign, I refer the hon. Gentleman to what happened in Bosnia some years ago. I simply ask people who say that we should put in ground forces now to reflect on what an undertaking that is. We are taking the action that we are taking because we genuinely believe that it is in the interests of the Kosovar Albanian people, as well as the right course for our military.

Mr. Nigel Griffiths (Edinburgh, South)

I have just returned from visiting two refugee camps in Macedonia. The people to whom I spoke want one thing and one thing only: to return to their own homes. They tell me that NATO is the only organisation that can make that possible. They are unstinting in their praise of our military and aid workers, and of the generosity of the British people. Will my right hon. Friend ignore the bad advice of the leader of the Scottish National party and others, and keep up the pressure on the murderous Milosevic regime?

The Prime Minister

We certainly will keep up the pressure. My hon. Friend confirms exactly our understanding of the position of the refugees. What they really want is to get back over the border in safety to the homes and villages that they left. We shall make sure that they do.

Mr. Ian Taylor (Esher and Walton)

The Prime Minister is right to stress that the presence of ground forces in the theatre would be very important, even if they ultimately enter permissively, and that a military solution must be led by NATO, otherwise the protection of the Kosovars will not be credible. Will he go a little further and explain what political initiatives he is taking to look for longer-term stability in the region? It is clear that the Russian policy failed because it did not hold back Milosevic, but that some solution will need to involve the Russians if we are to gain the political advantages from NATO's courageous military stance.

The Prime Minister

All I would say to the hon. Gentleman at this stage is that we constantly explore the longer-term strategy necessary with the Russians and others because it is increasingly clear that that must be seen in the wider context of lasting peace in the Balkans. On ground forces, he is right in saying that they must be NATO led. That is not to say that other countries cannot participate. They must be NATO led, however, because that is the only way in which we will secure the safety of people inside Kosovo.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

Why does the Prime Minister suppose that the Serb community who live in Britain, who see the television and have access to the newspapers, are 100 per cent. in favour of the stopping of bombing? Will the Prime Minister comment on the judgment of Spyros Kyprianou, having visited Belgrade, that it will go on for 100 days if necessary? That is the nature of the reaction of people who are bombed.

I have one specific question. Has the Prime Minister had across his desk the considered report of the German Federal Criminal Agency—I gather backed by Scotland Yard—which points out that the ethnic Albanian community is the most prominent group in Europe in the trafficking—[Interruption.] I am afraid that this is what the German Federal police say. They say that the KLA is drug financed—this is their view. What is our relationship with the KLA? There is a great danger that NATO has been tricked into being called in as the air arm of a very extreme group. This problem will not be solved by bombing, and some of us ask the Prime Minister to stop it tonight.

The Prime Minister

I can understand my hon. Friend being opposed to the bombing campaign; I really cannot understand his comments about the ethnic Albanian community, or about the KLA. There is no doubt as to who has been in the wrong. The people who cross the border are talking in the most harrowing terms of the rape, murder and brutality that they have witnessed. Those stories are real; that is what has actually happened in the last few weeks. The only way that we can stop it is to make sure that there is some force in the world prepared to stand up to Milosevic and say, "You will pay a price for this; and, if you carry on, you will pay a higher price and a heavier price," until he stops. I confess that I honestly do not understand my hon. Friend's attitude.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham)

The right hon. Gentleman described Mr. Milosevic's conduct as amounting to the murder, rape and terror on innocent people, and he is right; but given that, how can the right hon. Gentleman contemplate entering into an agreement with him? Is there not an inherent contradiction between, on one hand, having a policy of holding Mr. Milosevic and his generals personally liable for their actions and, on the other, seeking to bind them into an agreement? How does he reconcile these two objectives?

The Prime Minister

That is a question that in the end amounts to less than it appears. We are not negotiating with Milosevic on that. We have set down the terms; he has to meet those terms. If he or anyone else has committed crimes and the International War Crimes Tribunal indicts them as war criminals, we shall pursue them exactly as we are still pursuing those people from Bosnia—and we are picking them up, they are being indicted, and they are being taken to The Hague. We shall carry on doing that.

Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West)

My right hon. Friend rightly pointed out the imperative reasons why NATO needed to act to oppose the ethnic cleansing that the Milosevic regime has been responsible for, but will he expand slightly on the long-term settlement that is being explored by NATO and others? Can he assure me that that long-term settlement will not effectively reward ethnic cleansing by redrawing borders to create a series of mono-ethnic states, but will instead ensure that, in the fullness of time—it may be a long time ahead—we can recreate the multi-ethnic state that Kosovo could have been within Serbia if the Serbian Government had respected the autonomy of the region?

The Prime Minister

That is a good question. I believe that it is essential that any long-term settlement is not reached on the basis that we reward or tolerate ethnic cleansing.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex)

May I welcome the Prime Minister's announcement of the further troop deployment? Will he tell the House whether he and his colleagues in NATO have given any consideration to establishing safe havens along lines similar to those established in Iraq in 1991, which were extremely successful and backed up by coercive air power? Finally, in view of the fact that the refugees will return to a scene of total and utter devastation of their homes and communities, does the Prime Minister consider that it really is a very good idea in the next few days to get rid of a lot of Territorial Army sappers?

The Prime Minister

On the last point, we are quite sure that we have the required capability to carry out all the objectives that we set ourselves, and so does the Army, which is more important. As for the idea of safe havens, we consider all ways in which we can help to get aid to people and ensure their security. However, there are formidable difficulties in such an exercise. Of course, we keep everything under review.

Mr. Clive Soley (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush)

As a Member who has more Serbs in his constituency than most other Members have in theirs, may I say to my right hon. Friend that although they are desperately unhappy about the bombing, they know that there is a sense of shame among the Serb people at what is being done in their name? Ethnic cleansing is no part of Serbian culture. Ethnic cleansing is the mirror image of racial purity, which was practised during the second world war against the Serbs. Those thoughtful Serbs among my community know that, and that is the message that we must help them to get over. It is also the message that we must get over to the Serb people generally.

The Prime Minister

It is worth recalling that there are now 3.5 million displaced people in the Balkans as a result of Milosevic's policies. There are 1 million refugees in the European Union; and in Bosnia, before action was taken and the Dayton peace accords were put in place, 250,000 people died.

Mr. Alasdair Morgan (Galloway and Upper Nithsdale)

Can the Prime Minister say whether this morning's talks in Oslo have gone some way to making any progress in securing Russian involvement in this area, which I think we would all agree is not only desirable but probably essential for long-term stability?

The Prime Minister

I believe that those talks are going well. As I said earlier, I wish to have the Russians involved. However, there must be no dilution of the aims that NATO has set itself. In particular, we must ensure that there is no compromise whatever over Milosevic's forces being withdrawn from Kosovo, over the international force being in there, or over the people being allowed unconditionally to return to their homes in safety.

Mr. Robert N. Wareing (Liverpool, West Derby)

I can assure the Prime Minister that I share his absolute repugnance at ethnic cleansing. Refugees should have the opportunity to return to their homes in Kosovo. However, may I point out to my right hon. Friend that we must be even-handed and that we must consider also the plight of the 280,000 Serb refugees who were brutally treated in Krajina, many of whom are now in camps in Serbia? What will the Government do to ensure that we are seen to be even-handed in our approach to former Yugoslavia?

The Prime Minister

We strongly condemned the Krajina expulsion. That should show Serb people that we are entirely even-handed. We are against ethnic cleansing from whatever quarter it comes. It would be much easier if we had a Government in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia with whom we could work to debate the civilised principles of international law. We would then be in a far better position to deal with all these problems.

Our commitment to a long-term strategy for the Balkans is clear, but it is very difficult to see how it can be achieved until the policy of ethnic cleansing is not just defeated but wiped out of the lexicon of dictatorship in the Balkans for ever.

Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet)

May I join the Prime Minister in expressing the appreciation of my constituents for the professionalism of our armed forces? Having said that, I remind the right hon. Gentleman of what he said during the recess on television—"You will all be able to return to your homes"—knowing full well that many of "you" were already dead and that many of their homes had already been destroyed.

Did the right hon. Gentleman hear Mr. John Simpson on BBC television last night indicating in effect that the present policy is the best possible recruiting sergeant for Mr. Milosevic among the Serbian population? It may be unpalatable, but when will the right hon. Gentleman recognise that he and his incompetent Foreign Secretary have been bundled by the American Commander-in-Chief into this policy, and that the only way out now—I agree with the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Bell)—will be boots and armed forces on the ground?

The Prime Minister

First, in relation to the Kosovar Albanians, the hon. Gentleman should go and speak to some of them before he condemns the NATO action. As for reports from Belgrade, I think that it is worth reminding ourselves, every time we get them, that those people are allowed to be there by the Serbian Government. There is no free, independent television or radio in Serbia. Even reports that come from Serbia we should treat with suspicion, when the only things that those journalists are shown are things that the Serbian Government wish them to see.

As for the idea that we were bundled into this action, for a year before we took it we tried every diplomatic avenue. We tried exploring every political possibility. Why does the hon. Gentleman think that we tried, for month after month in the peace talks at Rambouillet, to reach a settlement? Precisely because we knew the

difficulties of such a campaign. In the end, I am afraid that—like it or not—in the real world we had either to stand by and allow this policy of ethnic cleansing to go on unhindered or to stand up to it and challenge it—and we have done that.

Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley)

May I assure my right hon. Friend that, as one who is just old enough to remember London being bombed at the end of the war, I certainly would like the bombing to end as soon as possible? However, must we not remember—time after time, as he has said—that Milosevic has forced us into this situation? Milosevic has refused—his track record shows it—to stop the ethnic cleansing and the policies that we find totally unacceptable; and this country would have been guilty if we had failed to take action and do something about that.

Is not the simple message to Milosevic, at all times, that he has the solution in his own hands and that he has to go forward from Rambouillet—and the quicker, the better? Does my right hon. Friend accept that countries such as Romania, which are right in the neighbourhood, also fully support the stand being taken by this country?

The Prime Minister

I agree with that entirely.

Mr. Michael Colvin (Romsey)

Does the Prime Minister appreciate that, as a result of the additional deployments of ground forces that he has announced today, nearly half our Army will be on active service, adding to the overstretch that it is already experiencing? Will the Government therefore give serious consideration to reversing their decision to mutilate the Territorial Army, which is our first line of reserve, or at least to postponing any implementation of that decision until after the Kosovo operation is ended, bearing in mind that large numbers of troops will be required on the ground to secure any peace, which is bound to be precarious, once the operation is concluded?

The Prime Minister

The Army has the capability to carry out the objectives that we have set ourselves. I do not want to get into a debate across the Chamber about the TA and so on, but I have to say to the hon. Gentleman that I recall that the Government whom he supported cut our armed forces by about 30 per cent. If we got into an argument of that nature, it would not be one that the Conservative party would win. In relation to ground forces, it is precisely because we know that we will need a ground force to secure any lasting peace there that we are assembling the forces in the region. We have the forces available to do that.

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax)

Given that what was supposed to be the world's first humanitarian war has turned into humanitarian disaster—with the Kosovars, in the short term, losing a country and the Serbs being bombed into the stone age—will the Prime Minister tell the House what is humanitarian about bombing a factory where workers are trying to protect their jobs? What is humanitarian about bombing civilians on a passenger train? Is it not time to stop the bombing, bring in the United Nations and the Russians and get all parties round the negotiating table? There has to be a political solution at the end of the day; is not it better to start now?

The Prime Minister

There is nothing very humanitarian, either, about ethnic cleansing. As for a political solution, I have to say to my hon. Friend that there has always been one available. There is a political solution available now, but it depends on Milosevic stopping the repression, getting his forces out of Kosovo, allowing an international force in and people going back unhindered to their homes and their villages. Those are the only circumstances in which the NATO action will stop and that is the only humanitarian solution to this issue.

Mr. Alan Clark (Kensington and Chelsea)

Does the Prime Minister appreciate the irony that this week there falls the anniversary of the great Luftwaffe terror raid on Belgrade in 1941, ordered by Hitler in a rage because the Serbs had deposed the corrupt regency, refused to accede to his demands and were siding with Britain? Does he not see that he is straining the credulity of the House by saying that this bombardment is directed against Milosevic's war machine, when he has only to read the report from The Times Bonn correspondent to see that, in the past 24 hours, it has destroyed a plastics factory, scored several direct hits on a bus station and destroyed a white goods factory—in addition, as the hon. Member for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon) pointed out a moment ago, to attacking and causing civilian casualties on a train? Does the Prime Minister realise that he is associating the House and the country with a sustained bombardment of a brave and Christian people who have never injured or even threatened a British citizen?

The Prime Minister

We make every attempt possible to minimise civilian casualties, but in actions such as this there will be civilian casualties. But the person who is engaged in oppression and terror is Milosevic in Kosovo. Where are these hundreds of thousands of people coming from, pouring across the border into Macedonia and Albania? They are fleeing from the terror regime that he is visiting upon them. It may be that British citizens are not at risk there, but there are human beings at risk, and we owe a duty, in Britain's best traditions, to support them in their fight for humanity.

Mr. Jim Marshall (Leicester, South)

May I ask my right hon. Friend two short questions? First, when the Ministry of Defence talks about areas being safe for troops to go to, as the leader of the Liberal Democrats said, are we not talking about peace keeping as opposed to peace making—"permissive" meaning peace keeping, not peace making? Secondly, my right hon. Friend referred to discussions with Prime Minister Primakov and President Yeltsin. Can he give us an interpretation of those discussions to illustrate what President Yeltsin meant last week when he talked about the possibility of a world war and of nuclear weapons being re-targeted on western Europe and north America?

The Prime Minister

I was simply making the point that there is a difference between a land invasion force and a force that goes in to secure people's return to their homeland, and that is what the ground force is there for. In relation to the discussions with the Russians, it is interesting to note that they do not object to the basis of the Rambouillet accords. On the contrary, they could support that. It is true, of course, that they object to the NATO military action. They have made that clear and I do not expect them to change that position. But they are as appalled as anyone else by Milosevic's actions, and it is important to remember that as we try to plot not just the military but the diplomatic path during the next few weeks.