HC Deb 23 March 1999 vol 328 cc161-74

3.30 pm

The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair)

Madam Speaker, with your permission I will make a statement on Kosovo.

As I speak, it is still unclear what the outcome of Mr. Holbrooke's talks in Belgrade will be, but there is little cause to be optimistic. On the assumptions that they produce no change in President Milosevic's position and that the repression in Kosovo by Serb forces continues, Britain stands ready with its NATO allies to take military action.

We do so for very clear reasons. We do so primarily to avert what would otherwise be a humanitarian disaster in Kosovo. Let me give the House an indication of the scale of what is happening. A quarter of a million Kosovars—more than 10 per cent of the population—are now homeless as a result of repression by Serb forces; 65,000 people have been forced from their homes in the past month, and no fewer than 25,000 in the four days since the peace talks broke down; and only yesterday, 5,000 people in the Srbica area were forcibly evicted from their villages.

Much of the Drenica region of northern Kosovo is being cleared of ethnic Albanians. Every single village that the observers of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees could see yesterday in the Glogovac and Srbica region was on fire. Families are being uprooted and driven from their homes. There are reports of masked irregulars separating out the men: we do not know what their fate will be, but the House will recall that at Srebrenica, men were killed. Since last summer, 2000 people have died. Without the international verification force, there is no doubt that the numbers would have been vastly higher.

We act also because we know from bitter experience throughout this century, most recently in Bosnia, that instability and civil war in one part of the Balkans inevitably spills over into the whole of it, and affects the rest of Europe, too. I remind the House that there are now more than 1 million refugees from the former Yugoslavia in the European Union.

If Kosovo was left to the mercy of Serbian repression, there is not merely a risk, but the probability of re-igniting unrest in Albania, of a destabilised Macedonia, of almost certain knock-on effects in Bosnia, and of further tension between Greece and Turkey. Strategic interests for the whole of Europe are at stake. We cannot contemplate, on the doorstep of the EU, a disintegration into chaos and disorder.

We have made a very plain promise to the Kosovar people. Thousands of them returned to their homes as a result of the ceasefire negotiated last October. We said to them and to Milosevic that we would not tolerate the brutal suppression of the civilian population. After the massacre at Racak, those threats and warnings to Milosevic were repeated. To walk away now would not merely destroy NATO's credibility; more importantly, it would be a breach of faith with thousands of innocent civilians whose only desire is to live in peace, and who took us at our word.

I say this to the British people: there is a heavy responsibility on a Government, when putting their armed forces into battle, to justify such action. I warn that the potential consequences of military action are serious, both for NATO forces and for the people in the region. Their suffering cannot be ended overnight. But in my judgment, the consequences of not acting are more serious still for human life and for peace in the long term. We must act to save thousands of innocent men, women and children from humanitarian catastrophe—from death, barbarism and ethnic cleansing by a brutal dictatorship—and to save the stability of the Balkan region, where we know chaos can engulf the whole of the European Union. We have no alternative, therefore, but to act, and act we will, unless Milosevic even now chooses the path of peace.

Let me recap briefly on the last few months. Last October, NATO threatened to use force to secure Milosevic's agreement to a ceasefire and an end to the repression that was at that time in hand. That was successful—at least, for a while. Diplomatic efforts, backed by NATO's threat, led to the creation of the 1,500-strong Kosovo verification mission. A NATO extraction force was established in neighbouring Macedonia in case the monitors got into difficulty.

At the same time, Milosevic gave an undertaking to the US envoy, Mr. Holbrooke, that he would withdraw Serb forces so that their numbers returned to the level before February 1998—that is, roughly 10,000 internal security troops and 12,000 Yugoslav army troops. Milosevic never fulfilled that commitment; indeed, the numbers have gone up. We believe that there are now some 16,000 internal security and 20,000 Yugoslav army troops in Kosovo, with a further 8,000 army reinforcements poised just over the border.

In January, NATO warned Milosevic that it would respond if he failed to come into compliance with the agreements he had entered into in October, if the repression continued, and if he frustrated the peace process. Milosevic has failed to meet any of those requirements. Even then, intense diplomatic efforts have been under way. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, and his French colleague Mr. Védrine, have co-chaired the peace talks in France. There is an agreement on the table. Autonomy for Kosovo would be guaranteed, with a democratically elected assembly, accountable institutions and locally controlled police forces. After three years, Kosovo's status would be reviewed. The rights of all its inhabitants—including Serbs—would be protected, regardless of their ethnic background. And the awful conflict that has been a blight on the lives of its people could come to an end. The Kosovo Albanians have signed the peace agreement. The Serbs have not. They have reneged on the commitments they made on the political texts at the talks at Rambouillet, and they refuse to allow a peacekeeping force in Kosovo under NATO command to underpin implementation of the agreement.

It takes two sides to make peace. So far, only one side has shown itself willing to make that commitment. It was Milosevic who stripped Kosovo of its autonomy in 1989. It is Milosevic who is now refusing to tackle a political problem by political means.

NATO action would be in the form of air strikes. It will involve many NATO countries. It has the full support of NATO. It will have as its minimum objective to curb continued Serbian repression in Kosovo in order to avert a humanitarian disaster. It would therefore target the military capability of the Serb dictatorship. To avoid such action, Milosevic must do what he promised to do last October—end the repression, withdraw his troops to barracks, get them down to the levels he agreed, and withdraw from Kosovo the tanks, heavy artillery and other weapons he brought into Kosovo early last year. He must agree to the proposals set out in the Rambouillet accords, including a NATO-led ground force.

Any attack by Serbian forces against NATO personnel engaged in peacekeeping missions elsewhere in the region would be completely unjustified and would be met with a swift and severe response in self-defence. President Milosevic should be in no doubt about our determination to protect our forces and to deal appropriately with any threats to them.

Mr. Holbrooke has made the position of the international community crystal clear to Milosevic. There can be no doubt about what is at stake. The choice is now his. Milosevic can choose peace for the peoples of Kosovo and an end to the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia's isolation in Europe, or he can choose continued conflict and the serious consequences that would follow.

I hope that the House will join me in urging President Milosevic to choose the path of peace, and that it will support NATO and the international community in action should he fail to do so.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks)

I thank the Prime Minister for that statement. First and foremost, I express the Opposition's wholehearted support for the British forces who might have to take part in the NATO action, for the service men and women who will be backing up those front-line forces, and for the families of those who might have to risk their lives as they do their jobs.

Given the repeated threats and ultimatums issued over many months, the Opposition's position is that we support the Government taking the action described. Indeed, my right hon. and learned Friend the shadow Foreign Secretary has often asked for similar action to be taken. Although we support the use of ground troops to implement a diplomatic settlement, we shall not support their use to fight for a settlement. During the past year, events in Kosovo have already led to a humanitarian catastrophe in our continent: more than 2,000 people have been killed, and hundreds of thousands have fled from their homes since the fighting began. As we speak, villages are being burned and people are being killed, as the Prime Minister has made clear.

It is clear that we now need to demonstrate to Milosevic the credibility of NATO threats and ultimatums. Does the Prime Minister agree that although, from the start of the crisis last year, there may have been a case—although we would not have agreed with it—for the west saying and doing nothing about events in Kosovo, and there was certainly a case for the west issuing threats and following them through, there was no case at all for a string of last warnings and ultimatums that were not followed through? The international monitors carried out their tasks with the utmost professionalism, in what had become an impossible situation. Does the Prime Minister understand the Opposition's regret that peace monitors were not deployed in May last year when we made our original request that they should be deployed? By the time that deployment took place in October, the situation had worsened and extremists on both sides had had time to win over more people from their communities.

Last year, the Government were right when they said that the response to the tragedy had been dithering and disunited on the part of the international community. Unfortunately, that continued for a long time and the credibility of NATO has been called into question. Does the Prime Minister understand that although we would welcome an explicit demonstration of NATO credibility of the kind that he has described, given the repeated threats of action we regret that some decisive action did not take place earlier?

We must all realise that military action against Serbia will put further strain on our armed forces. Does the Prime Minister recall the Chief of the Defence Staff telling the Select Committee on Defence that we could maintain two operations such as Bosnia and Kosovo for only six months? He said: I do not think we could sustain two for longer than that. Will the Prime Minister tell the House what steps he will take to ensure that the deployments that he has announced can be sustained? Will he give the House an assurance that precautions have been taken to prevent retaliation against British interests and British forces elsewhere in the world?

Any military action needs clear objectives. Although we support the Government's decision to use air strikes, will the Prime Minister confirm that those strikes are not a prelude to a ground war and that ground troops would be used only to implement a diplomatic settlement?

Can the Prime Minister also tell the House what measures are being taken to prevent the spread of the conflict to Albania, Bosnia and Macedonia? He has referred to his discussions with colleagues and he will recognise the need to do all in our power to encourage the international community to speak as one on this issue. Can he assure the House that Europe as a whole is now united on the need for action and can he inform us of what efforts have been made to meet the concerns of Russia?

Finally, does the Prime Minister agree that there is one person above all who must take the blame for the enormous suffering in Kosovo, one person who must take the blame for the enormous suffering in other parts of the Balkans during this decade, and one person who is solely to blame for the need to take the military action that the Prime Minister has been right to announce—and that that person is Milosevic, who must now be regarded as an evil man with much blood on his hands?

The Prime Minister

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for what I take to be his support for our position. It is important that we in this House take a united view and I am grateful for that.

I shall deal with the right hon. Gentleman's points. It is certain that all our thoughts will be with armed forces and their families. Our armed forces are among the finest anywhere in the world and we can rightly be proud that, in a situation such as this, they are not only willing to take action, but capable of acting in such an effective manner. We have often had cause to be grateful to them.

Secondly, it is fair to say that we have always been in favour of taking action sooner rather than later, but we could not take action on a unilateral basis. We have to take action with other countries—in this instance, within NATO—and we have done that. The degree of unity not only within Europe, but within the whole of NATO, is extremely important to the success of the mission.

Thirdly, I have no doubt that the deployment can be sustained; nor do I doubt our ability to make good any threat of counter-attack should there be any question of retaliation against the peacekeeping forces elsewhere in the region. Milosevic should clearly understand that. The best insurance against the spread of the conflict is to take precisely the action that we are taking. We know from bitter experience that we cannot afford such instability on the borders of Europe.

I agree entirely with what the right hon. Gentleman said about Milosevic, but let me make one final point. It is important to realise that we have been able to build extremely strong support for this action within NATO. Thirteen nations, including the United Kingdom, have some 200 combat aircraft deployed to the region: the United States, the UK, France, Netherlands, Italy, Spain, Turkey, Germany, Canada, Belgium, Portugal, Denmark and Norway have all committed aircraft, so this is a very united NATO action. If that unity is reflected across the Dispatch Box and within the House, that augurs well.

Mr. Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife)

This a bad business which could turn out to be a bloody one as well. None of us should underestimate the risk of casualties on either side. If air strikes prove to be necessary, those who advocate them and those who support them—as I do—might have to live with some extremely painful consequences.

Is it not true that it has become necessary to contemplate air strikes only because of the deliberate and brutal targeting of civilians by Serbian forces as they shell, loot and burn villages and make refugees of their inhabitants? Does the Prime Minister agree that if the immediate military aim is to inhibit and degrade the ability of Serbian forces to sustain and persist in their campaign of sickening and uninhibited violence, there must also be a political aim in addition to the strategic aims he outlined? May I suggest that that political aim should be to require the Milosevic Government to pay such a high price in military assets that they are persuaded—even compelled—to return to the conference table? Given that we should look ahead to the consequences of actions of this sort, does the Prime Minister accept that, if we have to embark on air strikes, that would be a step towards the creation of at least a de facto protectorate for Kosovo?

The Prime Minister

I agree entirely with what the right hon. and learned Gentleman said about the painful consequences of this action. As the leader of his party, the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown), said yesterday, there are painful consequences involved in taking this action, but the consequences of not taking it are even more painful. That is the right and honest way to put it to people.

As I have said, the objective is to inhibit repression by Serbian forces. It remains our political aim to return to the negotiating table because there is no doubt that the Rambouillet accords offer the only proper and realistic possibility of a lasting political settlement. I pay tribute to the work of the British and French Foreign Secretaries in putting that agreement together.

Finally, as to air strikes, there is no plan to have a United Nations protectorate in the strict sense. However, we wanted to get ground forces into Kosovo in pursuit of an agreement precisely to ensure that we could police that agreement properly and allow the constitutional settlement to take root. It is a tragedy that Milosevic has chosen not to take that chance. It is a double tragedy for him because the offer on the table was not a bad one from Serbia's point of view: it conceded many of the points that Serbia had made. By turning his back on that one opportunity to conclude an agreement, Milosevic has only himself to thank for the consequences.

Mr. Donald Anderson (Swansea, East)

My right hon. Friend is right to make this grave eleventh-hour statement as a final warning to President Milosevic and to point out the high risks involved. Most hon. Members accept the need for air strikes, but with extreme reluctance because we surely cannot be confident that bombs will bring peace. This is a high-risk action.

Are there any circumstances in which Britain would be prepared to commit ground troops in answer to the "What then?" question? In what way can we seek, even now, to assist the refugees—either by reaching into Kosovo or by helping the neighbours of Kosovo, such as Macedonia, which has been, and will continue to be, harmed by the conflict on its borders?

The Prime Minister

I think that everyone shares a sense of reluctance to commit our forces. However, as my hon. Friend acknowledged, that reluctance is overcome if circumstances dictate that it must be.

We proposed committing ground troops to pursue a peace agreement. However, there is a difficulty with committing ground troops in order to fight our way in: no one should underestimate the sheer scale of what is involved in that action. We would be talking about 100,000 ground troops, and possibly even more.

As to refugees, we are working carefully with humanitarian organisations and we will continue to support UNHCR and other bodies. There is no point is concealing the fact that, if we are forced to take this action, it will be difficult for people on the ground over the next few days. However, the alternative is to allow the Serbian forces to continue their brutal repression of the Kosovo people.

Sir Archie Hamilton (Epsom and Ewell)

Will the Prime Minister tell the House what his contingency plan is if the air strikes take place, yet Milosevic continues to defy NATO, does not withdraw his troops and the repression continues? What will the Prime Minister do then?

The Prime Minister

It is for precisely that reason that we set our clear objective to curb Milosevic's ability, through his military capability, to engage in that repression. That is our objective, and we shall carry on until it is fulfilled.

Mr. Bruce George (Walsall, South)

First, I believe that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister can count on the overwhelming support not only of the House but of the British public, particularly as he has put forward a convincing argument that the concept of a just war is not redundant. Secondly, I hope that he appreciates that now is not the time to rake over the coals and consider the mistakes of failed Government policies on Bosnia and Kosovo in the immediate past—or, indeed, the past decade.

Finally, will my right hon. Friend give reassurance to members of a Macedonian delegation who are here—as I was unable to do in a meeting between them and the Select Committee on Defence—that any attack on Macedonia in the present circumstances would be deemed to be an attack on NATO because Macedonia is housing NATO forces? They will clearly be concerned about the possible development of events in the next few days.

The Prime Minister

On the latter point, I assure my hon. Friend that any attack on NATO forces in Macedonia would be regarded as an attack on NATO itself and would bring about swift and severe retaliation.

My hon. Friend's first point is absolutely right: we are acting to avert a humanitarian disaster. If we do not act and the repression continues, its consequences will also continue. It is a sobering thought that we now have in the European Union more than 1 million refugees from the former Yugoslavia, and if anything demonstrates how much our fate, even here, is tied in with the fate of the Balkans, it is that statistic.

Sir Peter Tapsell (Louth and Horncastle)

Is it not almost certain that air strikes alone will not achieve NATO's objectives, as General Sir Michael Rose repeated yet again on the "Today" programme this morning? May I remind the Prime Minister that when air strikes failed in Bosnia and the previous Conservative Government announced that they were sending one British infantry battalion there, I warned them that it was useless to send one battalion when four divisions would be needed on the ground to do the job, and that proved to be right?

Does the right hon. Gentleman realise that saying weasel words to the British people at this point is wrong because the Government are proposing to make war on Serbia, and it is a profound political mistake to suppose that Milosevic is not supported by the mass of the patriotic Serbian people, who form one of the great fighting nations of Europe? If we are to pursue that policy, the British people should be told now that we are embarking inevitably on ground operations that will involve heavy casualties.

The Prime Minister

That is the isolationist wing of the Conservative party—[HON. MEMBERS: "No."] Yes, it is. The hon. Gentleman must face up to the consequences that would arise from his views. I assume that he is attacking the whole policy on Bosnia, and that he would therefore have allowed the civil war and the repression in Kosovo to continue while he did nothing. The consequences would have been the brutal murder of tens of thousands—possibly hundreds of thousands—of people and chaos and instability on Europe's doorstep.

No one disputes the fact that taking our course is difficult, and I said that in my statement, but the consequences of not acting would be to plunge the whole region into chaos and consign thousands of innocent people to death and brutality. Britain should not regard that as an acceptable outcome.

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

Does my right hon. Friend accept that the British people have learned more than anyone else that appeasement does not work and that ours is not only a just cause but, more importantly, one that affects the stability of Europe? Does he further accept that the British people recognise what is involved in such situations? Finally, will he remind the political and military leaders in the former Yugoslavia that some of their people have already been put on trial for war crimes, that British people and the emerging law around the world no longer allow people to forgive and forget those barbaric crimes, and that there is time yet for those people to be put on trial too?

The Prime Minister

That is an entirely appropriate warning that the war crimes legislation exists, and that people who engage in the crimes of ethnic cleansing and brutal suppression and murder, whether in the Balkans or elsewhere in the world, stand at risk. We should be prepared to use the war crimes legislation to bring them to account.

Mr. Tom King (Bridgwater)

Does the Prime Minister accept that he has done a service to the House through the clarity of his statement, which leaves no doubt in anyone's mind about the gravity of the choice that faced him and the Government, and which faces our country, or about the size of the challenge that will face our armed forces? There is, in my judgment, no alternative but to demonstrate firmly the credibility of NATO and to deal with a very serious situation.

If air strikes are successful, it will be essential for the land eventually to be retained by ground forces, as is part of the Prime Minister's plan. That will involve substantial deployments. Under the present provisions, I understand, they cannot be sustained for a long period. Will the Prime Minister give urgent consideration to that? We ask a lot of our armed forces. They unfailingly respond, as they have done on many occasions, but they are entitled to our fullest support and the knowledge that they will be properly supported on this occasion.

The Prime Minister

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for those comments and his support, which is all the more welcome from someone with his experience in such matters. I can assure him that we have carefully looked to see that the deployment can be sustained. We believe that it can be sustained.

I agree that if the air strikes are successful, we need to get the political process back on track. That is our aim, politically. I also agree with the right hon. Gentleman that we have no alternative if NATO is to remain credible. That is not our principal reason for acting, however. We are not acting in pursuit of a theory of credibility, but we have given certain undertakings, and if we do not abide by them, we will not have credibility in the future.

Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield)

Is the Prime Minister aware that there is absolute unanimity in the House and the country about the scale of the humanitarian crisis in Kosovo? May I tell him that the statement that he made is one of the gravest that I have heard in the House, certainly since Suez? An ultimatum has been announced, amounting to an all-out air war and possibly a ground war against a member state of the United Nations which, under article 51, has the right of self-defence. By doing so, the British Government and other NATO Governments are defying the charter, to which we are committed, and breaking international law. If the bombing begins—apart from the fact that it is no more likely to be successful than it is in Iraq—it is bound to cause casualties and worsen the humanitarian crisis, and it could well broaden the Balkan conflict.

May I point out to the Prime Minister that there are two bodies that he never mentioned in his statement? One is the United Nations, which exists to deal with crises of this kind, and the other is the House of Commons. We represent the forces who may well be sent into conflict—they are our constituents, our families. Not a moment of thought was given to a debate in the House, which would allow more than question and answer, and through which we could explore the Government's policy, consider whether it will lead to a ground war, as many believe it might, and come to a conclusion about it. To treat the House as though it were just an audience for "Newsnight" on so grave a matter is simply below the standard that we are entitled to expect.

The Prime Minister

There have been no fewer than three statements on the matter in the House of Commons during the past few weeks. There is a defence debate on Thursday. I am making the statement today in the House, where I can be questioned, not least by my right hon. Friend. That is hardly a "Newsnight" interview—I will not go into whether it is more pleasant or not.

I shall answer my right hon. Friend's two specific points. First, as a result of our action in Iraq, I remember how many people told me that Saddam Hussein would be stronger as a result, that he would be more powerful, and that he would be better able to suppress his people and wage war on the outside world. None of those things has happened. He is weaker, his military capability is weaker, and his ability to suppress his own people is hugely diminished.

Secondly, the UN has been important in relation to Kosovo. It has passed important Security Council resolutions. Let me read them to my right hon. Friend. The last one, Security Council resolution 1199, demanded that Serbs cease all actions by their security forces against the civilian population, and demanded that the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia Government order the withdrawal of security units used for civilian repression. A further resolution in October last year, UNSCR 1203, reiterated the previous one and endorsed the agreements between Holbrooke and Milosevic, including the verification missions. Milosevic has been in breach of every single part of those UN resolutions.

The plain fact of the matter is that we have to act now to avert the humanitarian disaster that I have set out. Of course, we will have an opportunity to debate this, and of course we should debate it, but the reasons that we have given have been very clear and I hope that they will be supported by the House and the country.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan)

The vast majority of the House is in no doubt as to who the aggressor is in these circumstances. But I have been listening carefully to the Prime Minister during the past 15 minutes, and it is not yet clear to me whether he has ruled out the use of ground forces if air power fails. I can understand his being cautious, but is that something that he can do, or does he feel that he cannot do it under the circumstances?

The Prime Minister

No, I have made it clear that we support the use of ground troops in supporting the agreement. We do not plan to use ground troops in order to fight our way into Kosovo, for the very reason that I gave earlier. I do not know whether that is what the hon. Gentleman is suggesting, but it would take a huge commitment—possibly more than 100,000 ground troops—and that is why we have said that that is not our plan.

Mr. Frank Cook (Stockton, North)

Will the Prime Minister accept that commentators observing the state of play in Serbia record the fact that the majority of the Serbian population are blissfully unaware of the atrocities that are being committed against their Albanian Kosovar neighbours? As a child, I witnessed how the bombing of Britain strengthened the resolve in the population here against the axis. What measures are being taken to inform the Serbian people of what their leaders are doing on their behalf, but not at their behest?

The Prime Minister

That is an extremely good point, but we have one great inhibition in getting through to the Serbian people directly, and that is that there is state control of their broadcasting and media. My hon. Friend is absolutely right: they are blissfully unaware of many of the things that their regime is doing. We take every measure available to us to get through to them, but it is difficult, precisely for that reason. It is worth pointing out that some of Milosevic's victims are his own people.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex)

I welcome the clarity with which the Prime Minister set out his solemn statement today. Does he agree that the House should be fortified and sustained by NATO's unity at this difficult time, and will he confirm that the United Nations resolutions do give the necessary legal authority for air strikes to proceed? For my part, I think it unlikely that they will be successful, and likely that ground troops will have to be deployed. To that end, does he agree that, throughout the period of hostility, the political track must be kept going?

The Prime Minister

I agree entirely that the political track must be kept going the whole time. One reason why people say that we have over-delayed in this is that, from last October onwards, we had a political track that we were trying to make work, precisely because we understood the consequences of taking military action. I agree with what the hon. Gentleman says about the UN and legal authority, and I also agree that we should be fortified by NATO's unity. The fact that 13 countries now have combat aircraft in the region, able to be used in the operation, is an example of NATO's strength and purpose.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

Thursday's debate is scheduled to be answered by the Minister of State and the Under-Secretary. In the circumstances, would the Prime Minister consider that either the Foreign Secretary or the Secretary of State for Defence, and perhaps he himself, should take part in what is a crucial debate?

In answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George), the Chairman of the Select Committee on Defence, the Prime Minister said that there would be "swift retaliation" if Yugoslav troops attacked troops in Macedonia. What, exactly, is meant by "swift retaliation" in those circumstances? Finally, a factual question: what have Mr. Primakov and the Russians had to say about the proposed military strike?

The Prime Minister

The position of the Russian Government and Prime Minister Primakov is well known and I doubt that it has changed, although they, too, feel a huge degree of frustration about the way their attempts to try to get a peace process on track have been thwarted by Milosevic. As for swift retaliation, we will judge that according to the needs that may arise at the time. It would not be wise speculate on that further, but people should know that, if our forces are attacked, there will be retaliation and it will be severe. Finally, my understanding is that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence is indeed opening the debate on Thursday.

Mr. Michael Colvin (Romsey)

The Prime Minister has said that action is now required to avert a humanitarian disaster, but the situation that he has graphically described shows that a humanitarian disaster already exists in Kosovo. I accept the exchanges that have taken place about the use of ground forces, but the Prime Minister said in reply to one question that as many as 100,000 troops might be required if ground forces had to be committed to follow up air strikes. The Serb army numbers more than 200,000, so many more than 100,000 troops would be required.

Following on from the Prime Minister's answer that troops would be deployed to Macedonia if there was a direct threat to the extraction force of 10,000 troops there, I remind him that the Macedonian army numbers only 20,000; it is a tenth the size of the Serbian army. What contingency plans have the Government, with our NATO allies, to deploy troops to Macedonia quickly—we lack heavy lift—so that they are ready to take action against Serbia, if that is required?

The Prime Minister

There are already many troops and heavy weapons in Macedonia—and, indeed, elsewhere—so NATO certainly has the means to visit severe retaliation on Milosevic should he attack any NATO forces. In respect of the ground troops, I agree that more than 100,000 would be needed; that is the very reason why I am suggesting the difficulties of taking such a course.

The hon. Gentleman says that a humanitarian disaster already exists in Kosovo. That is why we need to act, but if we were to fail to act—if we were simply to allow Serb forces to carry on their repression, without even the inhibition that the threat of action might have—there is absolutely no doubt at all what would happen. They would repeat what happened at Racak many times over.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Is not the choice for the international community simple? Either we allow the atrocities—crimes against humanity—to continue or we decide to act, and act decisively. We listen to the voices of non-intervention in this House, but almost without exception, those who argue for non-intervention and issue constant warnings of what disasters will follow if we intervene were wrong about the Falklands in 1982, wrong about Kuwait in 1991, and certainly wrong in respect of how the international community helped to achieve a settlement in Bosnia in 1995. Why on earth should we believe that they are right now?

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend is quite right to point out that there are those who can always find a reason never to act. I emphasise that the consequences of this action will be serious—we know that—but as we have said before, the consequences of not acting are more serious still.

Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford)

While I agree with the Prime Minister about the professionalism of our armed forces in the region—I have constituents out there, as have other hon. Members—what British civilians are there on the ground? Is he aware that British subjects have been targeted for kidnapping and killing by terrorist organisations in recent months? How will he ensure that British civilians are kept out of events as much as possible?

The Prime Minister

We have given clear advice to any civilian organisations operating in the area and we give what protection we possibly can. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we are well aware of the danger and threat to our civilians.

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax)

Does the Prime Minister accept that many of us genuinely believe that bombing a sovereign state could cause more, not fewer, civilian casualties, and could destabilise the whole of south-eastern Europe because the Serbs will almost certainly fight to defend their homeland? Is he aware that I visited Macedonia a few weeks ago? Not a single Macedonian Member of Parliament or citizen to whom I spoke believed that Macedonia should be used by NATO to take aggressive action against the Serbs—although the Macedonians rightly expect protection, given that they have allowed NATO extraction forces to be based there. They believed that dialogue was the best way forward. Perhaps a different way—perhaps putting sanctions against the Serbs on the table—might have helped, although sanctions harm the economies of emerging democracies in the area.

What will the strategy be if the bombing fails? What will we do if what is rightly described as the disgraceful action against the Kosovars continues?

The Prime Minister

We have set our objective; we intend to succeed in it. I agree with my hon. Friend that dialogue is the best way forward. That is why we went the extra mile to put together the talks process at Rambouillet. We put together the agreements last October between Milosevic and Richard Holbrooke. We have done everything that we possibly could to make dialogue work, but we are left with the realisation that dialogue has not worked. Then what do we do? Do we simply allow the repression to continue, or do we act?

In the past couple of years, there have been several occasions when the Government have faced that dilemma. No one wants to commit our forces unless we really have to do so, and everyone understands that the consequences of doing so will always include an element of uncertainty, but if we do not do that and we allow this to continue, then what? That is also a fair question to ask.

My hon. Friend talks about the Serbs and their homeland. The concept of Kosovo as an autonomous area within the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia strikes the right balance, recognising that the vast majority of people in Kosovo are ethnic Albanians and that it is their homeland too. All they desire to do is to be allowed to live in peace there, free from repression. We surely have to be the people who give them that chance.

Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon)

What happens if bombing does not bring President Milosevic to the negotiating table?

The Prime Minister

I set our objective clearly. It is to curb Milosevic's ability to repress the Kosovo population. We want him to come back to the negotiating table, but the precise minimum objective of any military action has to be to curb his ability—to reduce his ability—to suppress the Kosovar Albanian people. That has to be the task that we set ourselves. We can fulfil that objective. It is the right objective and it ties in, rightly, with our justification, which is primarily—as I set out in my statement—humanitarian.

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Hull, North)

Although I support my right hon. Friend's statement, we have still not had the answer to the question, "What if?" If it is our aim to curb the Yugoslav ability to persecute the Albanian people, the logic of that must be that we put in land troops. If we do not put in troops on the ground and merely use air strikes, we are left in a worse position than when we began.

Is not the logic of the position that, eventually, we will end up with at least a United Nations protectorate or a NATO protectorate, if not an independent Kosovo, with the problems that that will have? How will we be certain that the Dayton accords will be upheld by all the signatories to them?

The Prime Minister

I do not accept that land troops are necessary to curb repression in Kosovo. Air strikes properly targeted—directed against the military capability of the oppressor—can achieve the objective that we set ourselves.

Secondly, my hon. Friend mentioned the concept of a United Nations protectorate. There is no notion of establishing a UN protectorate in the strict legal sense, but obviously the purpose of putting in ground troops was to back up an agreement—a constitutional settlement—in Kosovo, and that, of course, is what we still want to do if it is possible. A precondition, however, is that an agreement is in place to which not merely the Kosovar Albanians but the Serbs themselves will agree.

I believe that the action that we have proposed will be successful.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury)

No one envies the Prime Minister the decision he must make. Does he accept, however, that evidence from Hanoi to Grozny suggests that bombing alone strengthens the resolve of a people, rather than weakening it—especially when those people, like the Serbs, have hundreds of years of memories of what they perceive as resisting the bullying of larger powers?

Does the Prime Minister really believe that bombing alone will reduce the atrocities being perpetrated against the Kosovar Albanians? If he is not willing to follow up bombing with the use of ground forces—and he has explained very clearly why we should not do that—I put it to him that it would be better not to bomb at all.

The Prime Minister

That, of course, is the conclusion of the hon. Gentleman and some of his hon. Friends—that we should not do this at all. I disagree entirely. If the hon. Gentleman wants an example of bombing achieving our objective, he should consider Iraq, where it certainly achieved the objective that we set ourselves. Let me give him another example. I do not believe that under the last Government, before the Dayton accords, we would ever have got the process under way had not military action been taken by allied forces. It is possible to give examples even from the region itself that show this to be a realistic objective.

I have explained the difficulty with ground forces. The hon. Gentleman had the courtesy to say at the outset that this is a difficult decision to make. I can only say that if we do not make that decision, and take no military action—let us be clear: we are not going to send in 100,000 or 200,000 ground forces with the consent of other countries, for no such consent exists—the repression in Kosovo will continue, and Serbia will know that there is absolutely no restraint or inhibition on its action. The consequences of that would be devastating.

My hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon) said that the Macedonian people were not in favour of the action, but the Macedonian Government have supported our position. People in that area know the consequences of letting the whole region slip back into total chaos.

Mr. John Austin (Erith and Thamesmead)

The Prime Minister has set out very clearly the consequences of non-action, and the possibility of a wider Balkan conflict. He also referred to dialogue. Is he aware that, while Holbrooke was in dialogue with Milosevic yesterday and today, the bombing and burning of villages continued? Does he agree that the time for appeasement has plainly ended?

Will the Prime Minister consider again whether Serbia has forfeited any right that it may have claimed to govern the people of Kosovo? Will he also give further consideration to the declaration of a United Nations protectorate of Kosovo, to shield it from further Serbian aggression?

The Prime Minister

I entirely share my hon. Friend's sentiments about the bombing and burning that continue. As for the declaration of a UN protectorate, I have said what I have said.

The Kosovar Albanians have indicated that they can accept the accords negotiated at Rambouillet. If the Serbs would only accept them too, we could put the process of agreement back on track. As my hon. Friend rightly said, however, our immediate aim must be to stop the unacceptable repression of the people.