HC Deb 09 June 1999 vol 332 cc744-57

10 pm

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

I come to the House with some important and welcome news about the situation in Kosovo. At the end of many long and hard hours of discussion and negotiation, General Sir Michael Jackson has announced that he has signed the military technical agreement on behalf of NATO, setting out the detailed conditions for peace in the light of the draft United Nations Security Council resolution.

The agreement sets out in detail how all the Serb forces should conduct a phased, verifiable and orderly withdrawal from Kosovo. It provides, as General Jackson has made clear, an agreed basis for the deployment of an international security force, known as KFOR, to establish a secure environment in Kosovo.

The House will appreciate that this agreement is a major political and military vindication of NATO's policy, of its resolve and of its determination to end the horrific ethnic cleansing conducted by Milosevic and his troops and regime. It will pave the way for the eventual return of the refugees.

We expect that the United Nations Security Council resolution will be passed shortly and that the necessary measures will all be in place for the rapid deployment of KFOR, but I must warn the House that we have been misled by Milosevic before. We have learned not to trust his words and we will need to see his troops on the way out of Kosovo. We will want to see verifiable compliance with the terms of the agreement before allowing NATO to suspend the bombing campaign.

That is up to Milosevic. For our part, we look forward to being able to move to the next and very demanding stage and to the enormous challenges that lie ahead. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made clear, there is now a huge job to be done as the Serb forces go out, the international force goes in and we get the refugees home. We are ready for that task and British forces will be among the first to cross the border into Kosovo. All the House will, I am sure, be proud of that effort and join me in wishing them and their NATO allies every success in the difficult weeks and months ahead.

Mr. John Maples (Stratford-on-Avon)

The whole House will be delighted with that news, and we are very grateful to the Secretary of State for coming here tonight to make his statement. This is obviously a major step on the road from war to peace, although, as he said, there are an awful lot of problems still to be overcome.

The talks were obviously extremely difficult and our thanks are due to General Jackson and his staff. Were any concessions made in the course of the talks? Press reports say that the Serbs are being given longer to withdraw than the seven days originally planned. Will that delay the deployment of KFOR, and is there a possibility that both KFOR and the Yugoslav army will be in Kosovo at the same time? Does that present any difficulties? It is also reported that the buffer zone has been reduced from 25 to 5 km. Is that significant to the security of KFOR?

What timing does the Secretary of State expect on the UN Security Council resolution? He said that he hoped that it would be passed soon, but, as I understand it— perhaps he can confirm this—KFOR cannot be deployed into Kosovo until it has been passed and the sequence would be: Serb withdrawal; cessation of bombing; UN Security Council resolution; and then the deployment of KFOR. We would all like to know that KFOR was in a position to deploy as soon as possible. Does he anticipate any difficulties about China's vote in the UN Security Council?

We all understand that the crucial test of success in the operation is the refugees being able to return to their homes, and the crucial ingredient in that is the composition of KFOR. Is there any significance in the fact that a footnote to the terms agreed on 3 June by Ahtisaari and the Serb Government spoke of KFOR having NATO at its core and a unified chain of command under the political direction of the North Atlantic Council but that the UN Security Council draft resolution does not go as far as that and mentions NATO only in an annexe referring to "substantial NATO participation"?

I know that such negotiations are difficult and the wording does not always say exactly what will happen, but we would like to feel sure that the force will be able to do its job, because, if it cannot, the refugees will not go home and we will not have succeeded in what the Government and all of us have set out to achieve.

Will the Secretary of State say a word about whether Russian troops will participate in KFOR? It has been said that they will not be under NATO command, but it is important to ensure that Russia does not get a zone of occupation in Kosovo and Russian troops are spread around, as they are in Bosnia.

The difficulties for KFOR, its British component and General Jackson are only just beginning. They have all been sitting waiting for this moment for several months—all of them for several weeks, and General Jackson for several months. I am sure that the whole House wishes them every good fortune in the operations that they are about to undertake.

Mr. Robertson

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his opening comments about the efforts that have led to this evening's news, and especially for his praise for General Mike Jackson. I was with General Jackson yesterday in Macedonia, and I know how much he appreciates the support given by so many people in this country, and on both sides of the House. The hon. Gentleman and 1, with other Opposition Members, have visited some of our troops in action, and that in itself was a solid illustration of the way in which the British public have stayed with the campaign through all its difficult days, helping us to ensure that we get the refugees back home, and that the strategic threat that Milosevic represents not only to Kosovo but to the wider Balkans, has, as I hope, been seen off.

The hon. Gentleman asked several detailed questions, but he will appreciate that there are many of them that I cannot answer. I have come to report to the House, as I thought proper, at the earliest opportunity, and we have not had the opportunity to see all the technical details.

However, the hon. Gentleman can take it from me, and from his own instincts, that General Mike Jackson would not have agreed to any conditions in the military technical agreement that he thought would obstruct his work in getting KFOR in safely and securely to go about its job. Some of the technical questions about timing will be fixed in the agreement, which will have realistically laid down, in a verifiable way, times when all the Serb forces will leave Kosovo.

One of the reasons for the delay in the discussions in the now famous tent was the need to ensure that there would be no security vacuum in Kosovo, and the Serb withdrawal would be synchronised with KFOR's entry. I am sure that we will be satisfied with those provisions.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the timing of the United Nations Security Council resolutions and the like. I am told that the North Atlantic Council, to which the military technical agreement will go, is in session as we speak, and it is possible that the UN Security Council will also meet soon, perhaps even before dawn, so that, simultaneously, each of the features of the agreement—the Ahtisaari-Chernomyrdin agreement, the draft Security Council resolution and the technical military agreement—can all work together to ensure that movement can be as quick as possible.

The hon. Gentleman also asked me about a unified chain of command. I can assure him that General Jackson, who signed the military technical agreement tonight as commander of KFOR on behalf of NATO, is under no illusions, and neither are the Serbs, about his role and the way in which he will go about his business.

I cannot answer questions about the role of the Russians, but we all hope that they and the other nations will find a peacekeeping role inside Kosovo. That will be done in the best and most effective way possible. I must correct the hon. Gentleman, in that the Russians who are working with us in Bosnia are not scattered throughout the country; they operate within the structures and they have their own particular structures, which have worked well in the past. They are in one zone in one of the multinational divisions in Bosnia. However, that does not determine the way in which things will happen in future.

At the end of his question, the hon. Gentleman rightly commended our troops for what they have done. I also commend the Royal Air Force, the Royal Navy and the civilian back-up in the Ministry of Defence—people who have done a great deal here. I also commend the other elements inside the Government machine—the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, who has played such a distinguished role in the past few days in securing the draft Security Council resolution, and all those in the Foreign Office, the Cabinet Office and No. 10 who have contributed to ensuring that we reached this position.

I repeat what I said before: despite all the difficulties, traumas and pain involved, the task of the past 75 days may have been the easier part of the job. A difficult job is ahead of us now which will require the same unity of purpose in the alliance and the same grim determination that has seen us through all these days. We must make sure that we deliver on the promise that we all gave—to get the Kosovo refugees back to their homeland again.

Mr. Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife)

The announcement by the Secretary of State is a credit to all those responsible for these matters over the past 75 days, and in particular to General Sir Mike Jackson. Anyone who has ever met him will know that those facing him across the negotiating table faced a very formidable adversary indeed.

Does the Secretary of State understand that, even for those who supported the Government, tonight is an occasion not for triumphalism so much as for relief? As he rightly pointed out, many of the past 78 days have been difficult. Would we not be right to be cautious about the tasks that lie ahead, not least because we have little idea of what NATO forces may find when they penetrate into Kosovo? Apart from the risks posed by booby traps and the indiscriminate use of mines, is it not also possible that untold horrors of brutality remain to be uncovered?

In that regard, will the Secretary of State assure the House that British forces, and the NATO forces in general, will be assiduous in collecting evidence so that those who ought to face the war crimes tribunal in The Hague may be indicted in due course?

Finally, the Secretary of State will be aware that some individual members of the minority community of people of Serbian extraction have displayed conspicuous bravery in attempting to aid their neighbours against those seeking to ethnically cleanse the country in which they lived. Does that not argue very strongly for a clear statement by NATO and the United Nations that any forces deployed in Kosovo will act in an even-handed manner, so that the policy and principles of non-discrimination can be part of the rebuilding of Kosovo?

Mr. Robertson

I thank the right hon. and learned Gentleman for what he has said just now and for his consistent support throughout all the weeks of this campaign. He is right to pay credit to General Jackson. Anyone who has met him—that now includes the Serb generals—is in no doubt about his commitment, determination, skill, clarity and power. The other night, I mentioned to a large number of troops from Britain and other nations that I was very glad to be his boss and not his subordinate. No man is better suited to dealing with the situation that now exists.

I feel no sense of euphoria this evening, and neither do any of the troops or any of the staff in my Department. Yes, there is a cautious relief at what we have got this evening, but there is also, as the right hon. and learned Gentleman noted, an apprehension about what our troops may find in Kosovo. That apprehension arises in part from the physical dangers that the troops may encounter, but our troops are professionally trained to deal with them. However, it stems also from the horrors of the ethnic cleansing that began some time last year.

In regard to those who have committed crimes against humanity, I can tell the right hon. and learned Gentleman that we will be resolute in tracking them down. Where we find relevant evidence as the troops go in, we will make sure that the investigators from the international criminal tribunal get access to it before it can be destroyed. Indeed, section 14 of the draft security council resolution demands full co-operation of all concerned, including the international security presence, with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. The UN has imposed that obligation on all its members.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman made a valid point about those Serbs who had the courage, decency and bravery to speak out during the campaign against the way in which the Milosevic regime was conducting itself. I hope that the people of Yugoslavia will look to those people for a clear future once Milosevic has gone. Ten per cent. of the population of Kosovo is of Serb extraction. When General Jackson spoke outside that tent in Kumanovo about the even-handedness with which he will do his job, he spoke directly to those people, who have a right to their homeland. If they have acted decently during the campaign, they have every right to stay there and to be treated properly as part of the community. General Jackson will take on that obligation with great pleasure.

Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley)

While we welcome the statement, those of us who supported the Government's actions consistently during the past 10 weeks must emphasise that we fully regret every bomb that was dropped and every death that has occurred, as does the Prime Minister. Milosevic, the butcher of his own people in Bosnia and Kosovo, left us no alternative but to take action to end unacceptable ethnic cleansing. Should we ensure that the United Nations and the European Union concentrate on overcoming the major problems that we will find when we enter Kosovo and Yugoslavia? There are problems throughout the region, including in Albania, Romania and Bulgaria, which have been economically weakened by the struggles of the past few weeks.

Mr. Robertson

My hon. Friend speaks wisely in pointing out that we regret that we had to resort to force. The intransigence of Milosevic, the way in which he conducts his business and the violence with which he has conducted the campaign left us no alternative but to act both for humanitarian reasons, to save the people who were at threat, and for strategic reasons. Milosevic would not have stopped at Kosovo. Vojvodina would have been next and Montenegro after that. Who knows where would have been next—Romania, Bulgaria, Macedonia or Albania? That is why British and NATO troops have been engaged. My hon. Friend was right to draw attention to the commitments that the international community will have to take on. In particular, Europe must rebuild that part of the Balkans and seek greater security for everyone who lives in that troubled part of the world.

Sir John Stanley (Tonbridge and Malling)

Will the number of Serbian troops and paramilitary police who will eventually be allowed back into Kosovo still be measured only in the hundreds?

Mr. Robertson


Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

Who will be responsible for civil administration in Kosovo?

The Prime Minister said yesterday that the administration would be guaranteed by the international community, but who will take the responsibility in the coming days?

Given that one of the most difficult problems facing any forces is to distinguish between guerrillas and civilians, how will we disarm the Kosovo Liberation Army both inside and outside Kosovo?

On ethnic cleansing, will measures be taken to protect the 100,000 members of the Serb community, most of whom are innocent and will face the danger of ethnic cleansing? Will any protection be given to the holy places, particularly the monastery of Decani?

Finally, as a matter of urgency, will my right hon. Friend set up a radiological survey following the use of depleted uranium munitions by NATO and a further survey of the dioxin poisons in the Danube and elsewhere? Such surveys are very urgent.

Mr. Robertson

But not nearly as urgent as getting back all the people evicted from their homeland. That is our priority. Although several of those matters will have to be treated, they will be handled with their due priority. The answer to my hon. Friend's first question about the civil administration is detailed in paragraph 10 of the draft United Nations Security Council resolution. In the first few days, it is clear that the commander of KFOR will be responsible for law and order until the Secretary-General has appointed an international civil presence in accordance with paragraph 10.

My hon. Friend asked about the disarmament of the KLA. Paragraph 9(b) of the draft resolution calls for the demilitarisation of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) and other armed Kosovo Albanian groups as required in paragraph 15". The leaders of the KLA have been on television almost as often as my hon. Friend to make it clear that they, too, will comply with the provisions of the UN Security Council resolution.

My hon. Friend asked about the Serb community inside Kosovo, which I mentioned specifically. It will be another obligation on KFOR in the initial stages, and ultimately the international civil authority, to ensure that all the citizens of Kosovo, whatever their ethnic background, are protected from violence. The holy places will be protected under another provision of the international treaty by the troops who be allowed to return in small numbers for that specific task.

On the environmental impact, certain aspects of Yugoslav life will be affected by the bombing. It was all completely unnecessary. The bombing need not have taken place. Force need not have been used if Milosevic had recognised that the international community would not stand back and watch him butcher people because they happened to be of Albanian extraction.

Sir Peter Emery (East Devon)

Will the Secretary of State accept that not only Front Benchers but Back Benchers wish to praise the work of our troops and of all the NATO troops, especially the Americans, who are not often mentioned but who played such a major role? To put party politics to one side, it is fair to say that one man much enhanced his reputation by being so firm and definite: the Secretary of State for Defence.

Has the Secretary of State heard the statements made in the past 90 minutes by the Serb generals? They are saying that they signed the peace treaty to end the war and implement Milosevic's plans for peace. I have never heard such false nonsense, but that is what is going to be put over.

Mr. Stephen Pound (Ealing, North)

Alastair Campbell.

Sir Peter Emery

The point is not missed.

Will the Secretary of State ensure that the Serb people realise that this agreement could have been accepted by Milosevic months ago, even last October, without the loss of life and terrible damage to property caused by the bombing?

Mr. Robertson

With due modesty, I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his courteous comments. I take them as praise for the Department that I have the privilege to lead and for the troops out there on the front line. He is right to commend the United States of America, without which we could not have assembled the air armada, with its precision weaponry, which has brought us to this point and ended the conflict.

My memory is gradually coming back. We cannot all have omnibus memories and I realise that, in my earlier praise, I missed out the Department for International Development. Given the sheer scale of the challenge faced by all of us when the refugees came across the border, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development and the officials in her Department acted heroically to ensure that people were treated well.

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned Serb propaganda. I fear that many people who should have known better listened to the lies told by Milosevic and were taken in by those lies for all too long. I am glad that, eventually, the damage done to the military machine persuaded some people that perhaps they should have considered the truth for a moment. When the truth comes out, many decent people in Serbia will curl up in shame.

Ms Bridget Prentice (Lewisham, East)

That cautious relief referred to by my right hon. Friend at the beginning of his statement is felt not only by Members of the House and by the people of Britain, but by the Kosovan refugees, some of whom have been welcomed to many of our constituencies. The unity of purpose of which he spoke, and which has also been expressed by the shadow Secretary of State for Defence during the past few weeks, must be expressed by all Members of the House. If it is not so done, those in Belgrade will take great succour.

Mr. Robertson

The House speaks with one voice. Milosevic cannot misunderstand the message: the relief that a mission, started with great reluctance, will end, we hope, with the refugees going back to their homes. My hon. Friend is right to point out that many people in this country took to their hearts and to their local communities the refugees from Kosovo, who came so far away from their own homes. Their stories, their personalities and their plight touched the hearts of millions of people throughout the continent and throughout the world. That in itself kept the drive going to ensure that Milosevic did not get away with making them refugees for ever.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)

The Secretary of State will recall that I consistently supported the use of military action from the earliest stages of this crisis. I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman and his fellow Ministers on their steadiness under political fire. Does he agree that those of us who were concerned about the over-reliance on air power alone may not have been proven wholly wrong, in that what was crucial to the resolution of the crisis—as well as the proper use of air power in context—was the success of our diplomacy in bringing the Russians on side and the threat, which was becoming much clearer, that ground forces would be used if Milosevic did not comply?

Mr. Robertson

I thank the hon. Gentleman for what he rightly says was his consistent support for our efforts. That has been carefully noticed by the public; their consistent support has also been absolutely essential. This evening of all evenings, I do not want to debate the ins and outs of what led us to this point. It was a combination of a series of factors, but, more than any of them, it was the commitment, resolution and unity of an alliance of free nations standing together against an unconscionable evil in our continent. That, if anything, was what led to the success of tonight.

Dr. Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak)

I share my right hon. Friend's wish that the refugees will soon be able to go home. Will he assure the House that every possible assistance will be given to them and to other innocent victims of the war to rebuild their lives? Looking further into the future, has not the conflict in Kosovo highlighted the contradiction between the United Nations charter, with its emphasis on national sovereignty, and international law on human rights? Will the Government set themselves the task of securing international agreement on criteria that, if met, would make it appropriate to undertake international military intervention for humanitarian purposes?

Mr. Robertson

Providing assistance in rebuilding Kosovo and other parts of the Balkans will be a heavy burden on all of us in this and every other country of our continent, but we must do it, because we must not allow Milosevic to get away with the damage that he has done to the community there. Some of the British troops I met yesterday were Royal Engineers, and I was able personally to praise them for their work to create the refugee villages. If people can remember that far back, take the scene on Easter weekend of the ocean of human misery on the border between Macedonia and Kosovo; in 36 hours, those troops created towns in which people had habitation, shelter and food.

My hon. Friend makes an important and significant point about the limits of national sovereignty and the way in which the UN charter appeared until now to countenance the idea that anything went, as long as it happened within the national boundaries of any one country. We have shown that the international community has a bigger conscience and a bigger sense of responsibility than that implies. I dare say that, in the great debates that will take place after the refugees have gone back to their homes, that is one of the issues that will have to be addressed.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

I commend the Secretary of State on the role that he has played in the conflict over the past 75 days. I believe that all of our armed services are the most professional in the world, and they have shown themselves to be so in the way in which they have tackled serious difficulties.

However, does the Secretary of State believe that we should be concerned, given that one of the news tapes I read earlier this evening indicated that NATO had watered down several key conditions in order to get agreement with the Yugoslav generals more quickly than would otherwise have been the case? Does the right hon. Gentleman feel that watering down those key conditions might undermine the chances of there being a lasting peace and a stable Yugoslavia?

Mr. Robertson

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his commendation, but I am only one member of a Government who took on this commitment with the support of hon. Members on both sides of the House. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, who is in Cologne tonight, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development have, with my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, played key roles in a team that set out to establish the rule of international law and order, and we had the support of hon. Members on both sides of the House for our action.

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that we have what we consider to be the best troops in the world. That is why the strategic defence review was specifically designed to ensure that, in future and if the country wanted us to, we would be able to do the right thing when there was a humanitarian challenge and a threat to the security of our continent.

None of the conditions that we sought has been watered down. The conditions laid down by NATO at the very beginning—the withdrawal of all Serb troops and paramilitaries; the return of the refugees; the insertion of an international security force; and a political process to take place to secure a future for the people of the region—have all been satisfied by and enshrined in the various agreements of the past few days. The hon. Gentleman should ask himself whether if the conditions had been watered down to the extent our troops might have been endangered, it is likely that General Jackson would have signed up to any agreement.

Mr. Malcolm Wicks (Croydon, North)

The Secretary of State is right to sound a note of caution, for until the Serbian slaughter machine is out of Kosovo and the great majority of the people of Kosovo have returned to their shattered homes and villages, there is no cause for congratulation. Nevertheless, I offer my thanks to the Secretary of State and his colleagues.

Those of us who have called for the protection of the Albanian majority in Kosovo now call with equal passion for the protection of the Serbian minority. One of the major aims of the peacekeeping force has to be to protect the innocent and decent people of Serbia in Kosovo from any action against them.

Our resolution on war crimes would be put into good effect if within days or weeks Karadzic and Mladic in Bosnia were arrested and brought before the International War Crimes Tribunal. For too long, those mass murderers have been allowed to go free, often passing the peacekeeping forces daily.

At some stage, this Parliament must take stock of the lessons of Yugoslavia. Five or six years ago, the majority on both sides of the House was in favour of appeasement. It would be absurd if we did not remember that tonight. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and his colleagues, including my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, were right in recent weeks to ignore those on both sides of the House who called for appeasement. If those right hon. and hon. Members, and they know who they are, had been heeded, the killing of young men would have continued, as would the burning of homes, the rape of young women and girls and the terrible treatment of elders in Kosovo. Those right hon. and hon. Members will soon have to account for what they urged the Government to do. I am thrilled and excited that the Government did the right thing.

Mr. Robertson

Doing the right thing is what we are all about. Some will always disagree, but we live in a democracy. I just wish that people in Yugoslavia had been able to speak out in the way that Members of this House can, without any punishment. They may be criticised, but there has been much criticism in the past few weeks of those of us who took a stand that did not always look as good as it has in the past few days. The consistency and unity that have been the hallmarks of NATO have been an example to all.

My hon. Friend mentioned the protection of the Serb minority and General Jackson made it clear this evening that he will act even-handedly. It is imperative that that message goes out to the Serb minority. We are not in the business of ethnic cleansing, even after the trials and tribulations of the majority population. If we are to recreate a decent society, it must be with all those who call it their homeland being able to live there also.

On war crimes and those who have been indicted for them, I remind my hon. Friend that on Monday British troops acting with the stabilisation force in Bosnia apprehended in Prijedor a man who was indicted for being a shift commander at a concentration camp only a few years ago in Bosnia. He is now, like so many others that we have picked up, in The Hague facing international justice. Eventually, the day will come when all those mentioned by my hon. Friend and others will face the same justice.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham)

The right hon. Gentleman will know that I am one of those who have been critical of the United Kingdom's involvement in the war. That notwithstanding, will he accept my personal congratulations to him on the way in which he has discharged the burdens of his office? Looking forward, what are his planning assumptions about the United Kingdom's contributions to KFOR? How many troops, how long will they be deployed and what planning assumptions have been made about cost? What are the likely consequences of a substantial deployment on our ability to mount another operation, for example in north Iraq, and what will be the impact of the cost on other defence objectives, for example the naval modernisation programme?

Mr. Robertson

I recognise that the right hon. and learned Gentleman has dissented honourably during the conflict and it is decent of him to say what he said. Others will reflect on the criticisms that they expressed and the forecasts and prophecies they made about what would happen. However, with the greatest respect to the right hon. and learned Gentleman, I do not think that our exchange this evening, based on breaking news at 9 o'clock in the evening, is the time to go into all those details. I encourage him to come back to the House tomorrow afternoon for the debate on defence in the world which will start after business questions, when I will deal with those and many other subjects.

Mr. Malcolm Savidge (Aberdeen, North)

May I congratulate the Secretary of State and the Government on the critical role that they have played in achieving this result? Does my right hon. Friend believe that, although the situation may remain difficult and dangerous, there are grounds for cautious optimism that we can end this terrible tragedy and bring security to the people of Kosovo and stability to the Balkans?

Mr. Robertson

I thank my hon. Friend for those comments, and I recall the memorable speech that he made in one of our many debates on this subject. We must look forward, but cautious optimism is all that we should feel at present. There are many tasks ahead.

Mr. Andrew Tyrie (Chichester)

I should like to take the Secretary of State forward a few weeks. If, after the deployment of troops by the west and Russia, there is a relapse in Milosevic's commitment to the agreement, does the Secretary of State think it is feasible that, with Russian troops on the ground, bombing could be resumed in order to secure Milosevic's compliance? Have there been any discussions with the Russians to deal with such an eventuality? If such negotiations have not taken place, is there not a risk that the Russians could acquire an effective veto on further action to secure Milosevic's compliance?

Mr. Robertson

If there are Russian troops on the ground, British troops will also be on the ground. British, Russian and troops from other NATO countries will be on the ground because the Serbs have withdrawn. As General Jackson made absolutely clear tonight, where appropriate, the air assault could take place over Yugoslavia where much attention has been paid in recent times. That is not being bloodthirsty or bloodcurdling, and I do not seek to humiliate Serbia. However, the Serbs must recognise that they have signed an agreement and that the sanction remains that brought them to the negotiating table in the first place.

Perhaps those who want to talk about Russian vetoes should look carefully at the role played by the Russians in recent days. Mr. Ivanov, the Russian Foreign Minister, was there when we secured the first G8 statement; Mr. Chernomyrdin was instrumental in securing the Belgrade agreement; and Mr. Ivanov was also involved in obtaining the draft Security Council resolution yesterday. I pay a tribute this evening to the Russians and the role that they have played in bringing peace to the Balkans. That is a great indication of how the east and the west can co-operate to ensure that we live in a much safer, more stable and more civilised world.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough)

Like most other hon. Members, I begin by congratulating the Secretary of State and all those who have been involved in this process. I look forward to an outcome about which I think all hon. Members are united: the return of the refugees. Is the Secretary of State confident that, as well as the military arrangements to secure Kosovo, there are sufficient arrangements to ensure that the refugees know what is happening? I bet that that group of people is not cautiously optimistic but desperate, over-excited, frightened and worried about whether other villagers will return before they do. Communication with refugees in the camps will be crucial in managing the process and making it work. I seek my right hon. Friend's assurance that the processes will be in place to achieve that objective.

Mr. Robertson

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. I agree that we must keep the refugees informed. We have taken this action on their behalf, but that does not mean that they do not have a role to play. We made the refugees a promise—personally and collectively—that we would get them home, and some will be desperate to return, even though they know that the circumstances may be dire and dangerous. I know that it is high on General Jackson's agenda to ensure that communication is right and proper and that people know what is happening. It will take a lot of energy on the part of the international community to ensure that all the interlocking factors work together so that we can get the refugees back home—if we can, before the winter sets in.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot)

May I say to the Secretary of State that we particularly appreciate his coming to the House tonight at this late hour to make a statement and take questions? Perhaps some of his colleagues could follow his example. It is fair to say that throughout this conflict he has always sought to keep the House informed, which is appreciated.

The right hon. Gentleman is right to be cautious about what lies ahead and to pay tribute to our forces on the ground, particularly General Sir Mike Jackson. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman would agree that they face an extremely risky undertaking with land mines having been indiscriminately planted and other possible problems with the Kosovo Liberation Army or dissident forces thereof.

Although the Secretary of State was unable to answer the point made by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg), and rightly drew attention to tomorrow's debate, he must have had some idea, in the run-up to the agreement, about whether he would need to deploy extra forces. Does he intend to call up Territorial Army reservists? Can he give us an idea of how long he expects our forces to stay out there, given that, for example, some of 5 Airborne Brigade and the 1st Battalion of the Parachute Regiment, which are based in Aldershot, have been on extensive training and other missions and would like to know for how long they are likely to be away?

Mr. Robertson

I say to the hon. Gentleman that there is nobody in the Ministry of Defence who considers 10.46 pm to be late at night, but it is nice to see him here at this late hour. I know that his questions about the Parachute Regiment have absolutely nothing to do with his being the Member for Aldershot. I spoke yesterday to the men of 1 Para and their distinguished commanding officer, Colonel Paul Gibson, at their training camp. They are absolutely raring to go and to do the job for which they have been training so extensively. Yes, that will be risky and dangerous, as I made clear. The men know that and they are trained to deal with such a situation.

By the end of this week, we shall have about 13,000 British troops in Macedonia, ready to go in when General Jackson gives the call. Large numbers of German and French troops are already there. More German, French and Canadian troops are about to land in Greece to go up into Macedonia. The United States marine expeditionary unit is also on its way and will be in theatre.

I cannot say how long people will be there. I cannot say what they will see, and I do not know what they will find when they cross the border into Kosovo. They will do their job and they will come back home as quickly as they can. Those who serve with the allied rapid reaction corps HQ are, of course, usually deployed for six months. Presumably, the clock will start ticking on that six months when the accord is passed, if it is passed, by the North Atlantic Council. Those men will be looking forward to that period of deployment being over, but, at the moment, they look forward to an engagement that will take all the skills, resolution and guts that they so legendarily have.

Mr. Tony Baldry (Banbury)

May I take the Secretary of State back to a comment about the regular reserve and the Territorial Army? Clearly, policing and preserving the peace will require the support and services of many men and women. It will almost certainly require the support of members of the regular reserve and the TA, particularly those with specialist trades and skills. Many of those men and women have already given six months' voluntary service in Bosnia. Against that background, will the Secretary of State assure the House that if he calls on members of the TA to serve in Kosovo, he will use his powers under the Reserve Forces (Safeguard of Employment) Act 1985 to ensure that their occupations and pensions are protected while they are serving in this endeavour?

Mr. Robertson

I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman's connection with the Territorial Army. We are very conscious of our responsibilities for the regular reserve and the TA. Some 10 per cent. of our forces in Bosnia come from the TA. If we need to deploy reserves and the TA to Kosovo—although that decision will ultimately be mine, the recommendation will come from the forces—we shall bear all the relevant factors very much in mind.

Mr. Christopher Fraser (Mid-Dorset and North Poole)

In the light of this new situation, has the Prime Minister flown out to Kumanovo in Macedonia? If he has not, does he intend to do so?

Mr. Robertson

I was out in Macedonia yesterday. Frankly, the last thing that they need out there are more VIPs descending on them. We can quite effectively send our good wishes to them—and we have, and we will. I know the presence of the Prime Minister in Macedonia was deeply appreciated and had a huge morale-boosting effect not just our troops but on the refugees whom he met. I have gone on a number of visits during this conflict, and—I think—for the very first time in any conflict in which our troops have been engaged, I took Opposition Front Benchers to ensure that our troops knew that not just the Government but the people of this country supported them.

Mr. Bob Russell (Colchester)

I am sure that the Secretary of State agrees that the widely felt relief has special significance in garrison towns. I follow the comments of the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) in saying that there are already troops from Colchester garrison in Macedonia. Indeed, I understand that several hundred more will be going. Does the Secretary of State agree that overstretch will be even more critical? If the short term becomes the long term, as it did in Bosnia, is there not a strong case for encouraging more of our European allies to relieve the pressures in Bosnia, so that British troops are not overstretched throughout the Balkans?

Mr. Robertson

Yes is the answer. We will ensure that all the European countries involved make a contribution. That is why I pay tribute to all those who have been engaged: the American pilots who have flown two thirds of the planes in the air campaign, the large number of NATO European ships in the naval presence and the thousands of European troops. They all have a role to play. The hon. Gentleman's presence as the representative of a garrison town reminds me to do one thing that I should have done a long time ago: pay a tribute to the families of the service personnel involved, who sit at home, worrying and concerned. They are making a huge contribution and a great sacrifice on behalf of the country. They are all hugely important. We think of them all the time. They are very much part and parcel of whatever policy we have for the armed forces.