HC Deb 11 February 1999 vol 325 cc565-76

7 pm

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. George Robertson)

With permission, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I should like to make a statement on decisions that have been taken today to ensure that British forces are immediately available in case a NATO force is required to deploy to Kosovo.

As the House will be aware, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary is currently at the Kosovo proximity talks at Rambouillet in France, which he is jointly chairing with the French Foreign Minister, Hubert Vedrine. A news blockade has been imposed on the talks to encourage the parties to focus on the discussions rather than on telling the world how they are going. However, it is clear that progress is being made. Contact Group Foreign Ministers will take stock of what remains to be achieved in the negotiations when they meet in Paris on Sunday.

It is unclear at this stage whether a NATO force will be required to support any peace agreement. Any decision to proceed with such a force will have to be taken by Britain and its allies in NATO following a satisfactory conclusion to the talks at Rambouillet. No such decision has yet been taken. However, it is clear that, should such a force be required, it will have to be ready to go into Kosovo as quickly as possible after a peace agreement is reached. A military force that is to be effective must be assembled well in advance. That means that we and our allies must have our forces in the region ready to go into action at short notice.

For this reason, the Government have decided today to send to the region at the beginning of next week the vehicles and other heavy equipment of the units that would form the leading elements of any deployment. They will include Challenger tanks and Warrior armoured vehicles and artillery. The units principally involved are the King's Royal Hussars, the Irish Guards and 4 Regiment Royal Artillery, with a tactical headquarters drawn from 4 Armoured Brigade. Other units will also be providing equipment. Loading of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary ships Sea Centurion and Sea Crusader will begin on Monday.

Although those vehicles and heavy equipment will be accompanied by a small number of personnel, the majority of the personnel from the units involved will remain at their bases at short notice to move and join their vehicles. The decision whether to deploy them will depend on how the situation develops. To prepare for the arrival of the equipment in the region, about 200 key logistics personnel will deploy next week to Greece and Macedonia, where we already have an armoured infantry company deployed as part of the NATO extraction force.

The House will draw from those decisions the clear message that the United Kingdom is determined to play its part in supporting a negotiated settlement in Kosovo. However, we will deploy our forces only in support of an operation with a clear mission and clear objectives, and alongside our allies. Contingency planning is continuing at NATO, with Britain playing a full part. Other allies are making preparations similar to ourselves. From my contacts with my fellow NATO Defence Ministers, I know that others will be on the ground alongside us should a decision be made to go ahead with the operation.

The decision that I am announcing this evening represents prudent military contingency planning. In no way does it prejudge any decision to proceed with an operation. Whether a force is to be deployed into Kosovo will depend in large measure on the parties: neither side can take it for granted that NATO will deploy a ground force. Both sides must make the hard choices necessary to reach an agreement.

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury)

As the Secretary of State knows, my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maples) is in Scotland tonight.

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and for extending to us the courtesy of an advance copy. I also thank the Leader of the House for responding quickly to this afternoon's request for a debate by the shadow Leader of the House, my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young).

This is a grave statement, and the House should not underestimate its significance. The Opposition support the Government in their attempts to find a peaceful solution to this protracted problem. We know that what the Secretary of State announced makes good military sense. It leaves many difficult questions for him and for us. The political and diplomatic issues will have to wait for another day, but the deployment of ground troops abroad is a serious commitment.

Can the Secretary of State tell us the extent of United States participation in the operation? For example, what air support will be provided by the United States or other states? What other European countries will deploy to the Balkans in addition to France? What will be the status of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe observers in the Kosovo monitoring force as a result of this significant move? What will happen to the extraction force? If he can, I should be grateful if he would tell us about the British contingent. We can think of no better commander for this operation than General Sir Mike Jackson. He is an outstanding leader who enjoys the confidence of the House and that not only of British troops but of others who are likely to participate.

Can the Secretary of State say anything about the rules of engagement? I do not expect him to break confidences, but will they be similar to those in Bosnia? What will be the impact on overstretch in the British Army following the strategic defence review and the commitments clearly laid out in that? For example, what will be the impact of taking the ARRC—the Allied Command Europe Rapid Reaction Corps—from Germany for a long period? How long does the Secretary of State anticipate that the deployment will last? This is a sample deployment, but a serious commitment could follow from it. Would it be a three-year term—I believe that that is what is being discussed at Rambouillet—or will it be longer? What will be our exit strategy? Who will pay? Will the cost fall on the defence budget or will the Treasury find money from the contingency fund?

All hon. Members must extend their good wishes to all our troops who participate, particularly to the advanced forces that will be sent next week. I also mention the non-uniformed staff of the Ministry of Defence who are looking after the strategic tail, right down to the people helping with the aircraft, ships and so on without which the front-line forces could not meet their commitments. Of course, we all think of the families of the forces and of all those who are involved in this operation in a supportive role.

As the House goes into a short recess next week, will the Secretary of State be sure to keep us all informed? I understand that the other place will not be in recess next week, but we must be kept informed of any moves on this important development.

Mr. Robertson

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his courtesy and his recognition that we have responded to the wish of the House for information on what is, I stress, a purely precautionary contingency operation. I believe strongly that it would be irresponsible for us not to take these precautionary moves and put in place contingencies. Although many of his questions cannot be answered at this stage, they will form part of the background to any decision eventually taken by the Government. We will, of course, inform the House of any such decision.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the role that the United States might play in any such force and about other European allies beyond France. I expect that our NATO allies would be involved in any force that might be put in place, should there be an agreement at appropriate levels, but no decisions have been taken on whether there should be a force or on its ultimate size. I expect and hope that the United States and the other major allies would be involved in it. Having discussed that matter in person with other NATO Defence Ministers last weekend, I believe that that is more than an ordinary hope.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the status of the monitors already in Kosovo, who are doing an outstanding job in extremely difficult circumstances. Clearly, he knows that I cannot and should not embark on speculation about their future. He mentions the British commander of the Allied Command Europe Rapid Reaction Corps—otherwise known as the ARRC—General Sir Mike Jackson, who is outstanding and who, in the circumstances of a deployment, will be in command of the ARRC headquarters and whatever troops we put in place, should that prove the right thing to do.

I cannot answer questions on rules of engagement, for reasons that the hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well. However, on the subject of existing commitments, I can say that, if we were to go ahead with such a deployment, it would clearly have an impact on our forces. Some 27 per cent. of the British Army is currently on operations—an historically high figure. That is extremely demanding of the individuals affected by it, and that applies to the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force as well. However, we must do what we have to do if we are to ensure that our continent is safe and that there are no further atrocities of the sort that we witnessed a few weeks ago. That is why we are putting these precautions in place.

For obvious reasons, I cannot tell the House how long any commitment would last—the talks are going on and a minute-by-minute discussion of them would hardly be helpful in terms of pressure on the parties—nor can we talk at this stage about an exit strategy. However, in my statement, I made it absolutely clear that we are interested in getting involved only if there is a clear mission with clear objectives. I hope that that reassures the House. Payment will be dealt with in the normal way: the defence budget will cope with what the defence budget can cope with; beyond that, I shall make a claim on the contingency reserve. That is the standard formula, applied from Government to Government.

The hon. Gentleman's good wishes to those who might be deployed, those who are now being put on short notice and those who will be engaged in putting equipment on ships and getting it under way, are appreciated, as are his remarks about those working on the logistics side, those involved in a civilian capacity and all the families concerned. His good wishes will be welcomed and they are well deserved.

Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield)

Will the Secretary of State cite to the House the specific legal authority under the charter of the United Nations or the constitution of NATO that would allow armed forces to enter a sovereign state—Yugoslavia—if that state were to object? If that were to take place, would the Government believe that Yugoslavia had, under article 51 of the UN charter, the right of self defence? If British troops are injured or captured in those circumstances—without a state of war—would they be protected by the Geneva convention? Finally, will he tell the House whether Parliament will be given an opportunity to give its judgment before British forces are committed?

Mr. Robertson

My right hon. Friend misunderstands what I have announced. When he reads my statement later on, he will see that I have announced the sensible precaution, a contingency measure, of putting in place some of the equipment that might be used were a decision to be taken to go ahead with a deployment. The discussions currently taking place with the representatives of the Government of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and the representatives of the Kosovo Albanians will determine whether there will be any agreement. I have already made it clear that I will expect to keep Parliament informed of any decision that is taken about using the troops who are to have their equipment sent en route, as I have announced.

Mr. Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife)

Those are entirely sensible precautions if we are to put ourselves in the position of being able to make a contribution to a negotiated settlement. If anyone doubts the need for a negotiated settlement, perhaps the scenes of today's mass burial in Kosovo will remove those doubts.

The Secretary of State tells us that the decision to deploy will depend on a satisfactory conclusion to the talks in Rambouillet. May I press him a little further? Must not it also depend on sufficient pledges from other NATO nations to provide a credible total force, and a pledge from the United States of America to provide a substantial contingent of ground forces? Are the units to which he has referred fully manned? If not, how is the shortfall to be made up?

Mr. Robertson

Let me underline yet again that I am talking about sensible precautions, contingencies—no more, no less. The right hon. and learned Gentleman is right to say that we should be aware of what we are doing, and that that can, in many ways, assist the seriousness of negotiations. We shall of course be going to the area with forces of other NATO nations. I have discussed that matter with Defence Ministers, and I know that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will have discussed it with his colleagues. The matter has been dealt with at Heads of Government level, too. We want the maximum number to commit forces in advance, should there be a settlement, as we all hope.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman is absolutely right to pinpoint why we are even talking about this tonight. The scenes on television today, and the atrocities that have occurred before and during the past few weeks, have moved people across the world. That is why the talks are going on, and why, in many ways, it is remarkable that both parties are sitting down together in that chateau near Paris. It is why we must all hope that the talks are successful.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex)

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that, although this deployment may be only precautionary, it obviously sends a formidable and powerful message, which will not escape those negotiating in Paris? Will he quantify what he already knows that our allies are moving? Does he intend to beef up air assets available to the deployment, should it go ahead? Will he confirm that, in the weeks to come, he and his colleagues will be doing a good deal of work to secure a complete legal basis and rules of engagement for such a deployment, were it to take place?

Mr. Robertson

The hon. Gentleman speaks with some authority. He will know that none of this announcement has been made without deep thought and genuine concern for the individuals who might be involved. At the moment, we are only moving heavy equipment, which must get on the high seas if it has even the slightest chance of reaching the theatre in order for a decision then to be taken one way or another.

I am not in a position to quantify what our allies will be doing. NATO's force generation conference has not yet taken place, but I know from discussions last weekend with fellow Defence Ministers that they, too, see the merit of this contingency deployment, and are already putting in place their own contingency plans in order to be able to ensure that when—or if—an agreement is reached, we have a sensible basis on which to move forward.

Perhaps the House does not need to be reminded, but there are already RAF personnel and air and ground crews at Gioia del Colle air base in Italy as part of the actord—activation order—which hangs over the scene as yet another sensible precaution. A large force of American aeroplanes is involved in that force, with RAF and other allies, and is a vital part of the threat of force that backs up the diplomacy which has got the parties together.

Mr. Bruce George (Walsall, South)

I hope that the Secretary of State has been persuading his fellow NATO parliamentarians and members of Governments to replicate what he is doing by making statements to their legislatures. His decision is not only prudent, but commands the support of the overwhelming majority of Members of Parliament. It is critically important to the future of NATO and of any European dimension to security that there is not just a presence, but a formidable one, alongside British troops. Both organisations would be fatally weakened if some countries chose to send only token forces. That is an important point.

Secondly, has the Secretary of State looked at his diary for next week? I hope that he has and that he realises that he will appear before the Select Committee on Defence. While our colleagues are enjoying their well-earned break, he will be explaining these events in rather more detail than he has been able to do this evening. On behalf of the other 10 members of the Committee, I can tell him that we are looking forward immensely to abandoning our visits to the Caribbean and the south of France so that we can listen to him explain in great detail what he has in mind for British forces.

Mr. Robertson

I remind my hon. Friend that there may be recesses for Members, but there are no recesses for Ministers. I look forward to meeting all the members of the Defence Committee next Wednesday when I shall give evidence before them, and to having the opportunity to deal with matters in detail.

The procedures of other nations are a matter for them. Some have elaborate procedures in their Parliament and that is their tradition. This is our tradition, and I am responsible for generating forces from this country. Of course, we are on test. This is a European crisis and we look to Europeans to live up to the challenge put before us. Therefore, I hope that all our NATO allies in Europe will contribute if it is necessary to send in a force to supervise an agreement.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

Does not the crisis demonstrate the paramount need for the Royal Air Force to have at its disposition heavy lift cargo aircraft that can take the heaviest equipment such as the Challenger tank, a number of Warriors or several helicopters straight into theatre within three hours of take-off in the United Kingdom? That deficiency was highlighted in the strategic defence review and has not yet been rectified. Is it not about time that the RAF bought some C17s?

Mr. Robertson

I would hate this statement to become an auction on which aeroplanes we might eventually buy. The SDR identified the need for strategic heavy lift. That was one of the review's central features and one of the major deficiencies that we inherited from the previous Government. It is only eight months since the SDR was endorsed by Parliament and we are still involved in the process. I assure the hon. Gentleman that the sensible precautions that we are taking mean that we shall have the right forces with the right training and the right equipment in the right place so that we can make a decision, if one is required.

Mr. Donald Anderson (Swansea, East)

Will my right hon. Friend remind the Foreign Secretary that he will meet the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs next Wednesday, when most colleagues will be working hard in their constituencies, and that he can, if necessary, make a statement? Will he acknowledge the enormous importance, practically and symbolically, of the fact that NATO and Russia are working together, and does he agree that they should stick together throughout the process and translate the political unity of the Contact Group into a military unity? Will he make it absolutely clear that no British troops will be deployed in Kosovo until there is a political deal, and then only to reinforce that deal?

Mr. Robertson

My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary is currently engaged in the detailed and momentous discussions at Rambouillet and will be concentrating on those at the moment, but I know that, when he meets the Foreign Affairs Committee, he will give its members the proper attention.

My hon. Friend is right to point out that relations between NATO and Russia on this issue are cordial. Indeed, that is one of the major strengths of the negotiations and, perhaps, one of the factors in the decision by the parties to come to the proximity talks. Clearly we want those good relations to continue.

I made absolutely clear in my statement the circumstances in which British troops would go into Kosovo. I repeat: we shall deploy our forces only in support of an operation with a clear mission and clear objectives and alongside our allies.

Mr. Martin Bell (Tatton)

Will the Secretary of State clarify his thinking in the event that the talks in Rambouillet fail? Presumably, the tanks, the guns and the advance parties come home. How do we stay engaged? How do we deal with the threat to peace in the Balkans?

Mr. Robertson

That is a hypothetical situation—a serious one, but a hypothetical one, when the parties are at present sitting round the same tables in Rambouillet. I do not think that, for the moment, we should countenance the idea of failure, or allow them to think that they can leave the talks in the midst of failure. I told the House that the equipment and the limited numbers that we are sending can at any point be taken back. What we cannot do is put them into place if we have not made the contingency arrangements.

Mr. John Austin (Erith and Thamesmead)

I welcome the prudent and sensible precautionary measures that the Secretary of State has taken. Can he confirm—and if not, will he investigate—reports that, even this week, villages around Podujeva and Llapashtica have come under heavy shelling from the Serbian forces, and that villages around Malisheva have been heavily machine gunned? What action will the Contact Group take if there are blatant breaches of the ceasefire while the Rambouillet talks are still in progress?

Mr. Robertson

The issues that my hon. Friend raises underline the gravity of the situation and the urgency of a successful outcome to the talks. They place a heavy responsibility on both sides in the talks to come to an agreement soon, to allow the political process to develop and new institutions to grow up that will stop the violence. Both sides, as it happened, condemned the grenade attacks that took place last week. The message that we have given to both sides is that the violence must stop. The talking at Rambouillet is where the future of Kosovo should be determined, not in exchanges of machine gun fire.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate)

The Government have a division-minus deployed indefinitely in Bosnia. They are about to prepare to deploy indefinitely a corps headquarters and a brigade to Kosovo. The right hon. Gentleman told me in a written answer last week that the central assumptions in the strategic defence review of one formation indefinitely deployed and one formation on only a six-months deployment was what drove the force structure that abhz out of the strategic defence review. When will he review the force structure arising out of the strategic defence review?

Mr. Robertson

I am confident that the overall force structure that was determined by the strategic defence review allows us to make those deployments, if the decision is ultimately taken to make them.

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax)

My right hon. Friend stated that the Russians are on board for the negotiations. Can he spell out in detail the level of co-operation of the Russians? Would they be involved in deploying troops or other personnel if we went into Kosovo?

Mr. Robertson

My hon. Friend is taking me into territory that is not mine and on which it is not wise to speculate in any event. The Russians are fully engaged in the talks, are full members of the contact group and are fully part and parcel of the efforts that are being made through the talks, which are chaired by my right hon. Friend and the French Foreign Minister. I sincerely hope that the Russians will continue to be engaged because further outbreaks of violence or the further disintegration of Kosovo would not be in their interest or anyone else's.

Mr. William Cash (Stone)

Will the Secretary of State comment on the fact that, in what happened in Iraq, we had no support, effectively, from our so-called partners in the European Union in matters of defence? Will he also comment on the basis on which he said that he expects—in other words, hopes—that there will be allied support, other than from the United States? Can he tell us what discussions have taken place with our European partners under the Western European Union, having regard to the Maastricht and Amsterdam treaties? Is there any prospect of a full and united response by the EU, or is all the paperwork no more than rhetoric about the operations, with no practical action?

Mr. Robertson

I get a sense of deja vu every time the hon. Gentleman stands up to speak. I hear the obsession with Europe, which is seen always through the light of dismal failure. On the subject of being alone in Iraq, I draw his attention to the fact that the German Government—and the German Defence Minister, here in London—endorsed absolutely everything that we did in Iraq, saying that it was right and perfectly justified.

I also point out to the hon. Gentleman—in the hope that I might puncture this conspiracy theory, by which he seems always to be captivated—that the talks are chaired by the British Foreign Secretary and the French Foreign Minister. They are British-French talks that are designed to try to ensure that, in one part of our own continent, we concentrate our minds on how the fighting can stop and how we can build a sustainable peace.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

Although these measures are clearly precautionary, should not an answer be given to my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) in respect of the legality of proposed actions? These are matters of considerable importance. It cannot be the case that, if the circumstances arise in which there is a call for action, we will not act because of the problems that have been raised by my right hon. Friend. Is not my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State in an odd logical position in respect of that issue?

Mr. Robertson

I make it clear to my hon. Friend that British troops will never be deployed other than in accordance with international law.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)

Will the Secretary of State accept my warmest congratulations on his statement? I endorse every word he said. He referred to the pictures in today's papers showing the funerals of the victims of the massacre. Does he agree that it is ironic that accounts of the massacres 57 years ago in western Russia and eastern Poland—of hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians, because of their religion—have also appeared today? Does he also agree that the action that he and the Government are taking sends a signal to the world community that we will never again tolerate such dreadful atrocities in Europe?

Mr. Robertson

I will set aside the worry that takes me when the hon. Gentleman praises and congratulates me, and assume that his remarks are welcome. The whole thrust of the talks that are taking place between the parties at Rambouillet, and the fact that we have summoned them together and they have come, is a clear signal that we are not willing to accept the kind of atrocities that have taken place or the kind of humanitarian crisis that was threatened before the end of last year. We must urgently make sure that the parties agree on a political way forward and that the international community makes sure that they stick to it.

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

As the Contact Group called the Rambouillet summit, may I press my right hon. Friend on the participation of Russia? Is he convinced that Russia would support the sending of 30,000 troops to Kosovo? Even though we all sincerely hope that there will be a peaceful outcome as a result of the negotiations in Rambouillet, may I preach caution to him on the presence of 30,000 foreign troops in Kosovo? We know from Northern Ireland experience that progress toward peace often breaks down. If there are 30,000 troops in Kosovo, there could be a tremendous tragedy in that part of the world and British soldiers, among others, could die—and for what cause?

Mr. Robertson

Russia is a full member of the Contact Group, and therefore a full participant in the talks and all the pre-discussion that took place. It is fully behind the need to move forward politically and to end the violence that was overtaking, and could easily again overtake, Kosovo.

I am confident that, although our forces have pressures on them that they have probably never had before, they have the spirit, commitment and dedication to take on the tasks that are being placed on them, and that could be placed on them if the decision were taken to deploy them in this theatre alongside our NATO allies. I have just spent four days in the Gulf meeting a large number of our forces who are far from home. They are involved in dedicated and courageous activity out there. I sense in them their absolute commitment to maintaining and contributing to international law and order. I have no doubt that, if they are required to do so, they will rise to the occasion as they usually do.

Mr. Andrew Tyrie (Chichester)

I understand that, although 2,000 monitors were committed to Kosovo as a result of the Holbrooke agreement, in the end, only about two thirds of them arrived. What confidence does that give us that any commitment of forces from other countries will be fulfilled? Will the Secretary of State give us an idea of the maximum proportion that the British would be prepared to bear of the total force that may go into Kosovo?

Mr. Robertson

I cannot give the House details, because the total size of the force is yet to be determined, and will not be determined until the force generation conference takes place. If the allied rapid reaction corps headquarters were to be deployed with associated elements, a possible British commitment of some 8,000 troops would be involved. The proportion will depend on the size of the total force, and on the number of troops that our allies contribute. When I met the other Defence Ministers last weekend, I recognised in them a determination to ensure that, if we get the political agreement that we are all hoping for at Rambouillet, any force that may be deployed in the area would be of a sufficient size to ensure that the settlement was delivered.

Mr. John Randall (Uxbridge)

Is it envisaged that German troops will be part of the NATO force? Although I understand the need for unity among the allies and NATO, I reiterate the point made during a previous statement on Kosovo by the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) that the use of German troops would be at best insensitive and at worst highly provocative, and might jeopardise a fragile peace.

Mr. Robertson

I shall show restraint and say that Germany expects to contribute to any force that may be deployed in pursuit of a peace agreement, and so it should. It is a proud democracy inside Europe. It will want to play a part, and we want it to be involved.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot)

May I say how welcome it is that the right hon. Gentleman has come to the House to make the announcement to us before we have heard it on the "Today" programme? May I also congratulate him on the appointment of General Sir Mike Jackson, who will undoubtedly instil huge fear into anyone who threatens to step out of line?

Pursuant to the question posed by my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt), to what extent will the deployment of a force to Kosovo inhibit the Government's ability to deploy troops in other theatres should the need arise? I am thinking in particular of Sierra Leone.

Mr. Robertson

I welcome the hon. Gentleman commendations. He is right to use such language about General Sir Mike Jackson, who will be formidable. We all wish him well if or when the deployment takes place. No one in the Ministry of Defence, least of all me as chairman of the Defence Council, will take any decision lightly—even about putting in place contingencies—unless I am satisfied that we are able to do what this nation is called upon to do.

There must be a balance. I must take military advice on what is necessary. I have listened carefully to the commanders' responses to requests for information, and to discussions in NATO. The political decision is for me, but, as I have said, I listen carefully to advice, and I am confident that we can act in the way that I have described while at the same time discharging our other responsibilities. If I were not confident, I would not take such action.

Mr. John Butterfill (Bournemouth, West)

We all support what the Secretary of State is doing today, but will he give us a clear undertaking that there is no question of British troops being deployed in Kosovo, other than as part of a multinational force of a suitable balance and size?

Mr. Robertson

I can give the hon. Gentleman that assurance.

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