HC Deb 08 November 1999 vol 337 cc678-81
5. Barbara Follett (Stevenage)

If he will make a statement on future commitments in Kosovo. [96126]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon)

The United Kingdom remains committed to long-term peace and stability in Kosovo, and the Balkans as a whole. KFOR has now reached its intended strength of 50,000. British troops currently contribute a framework brigade headquarters and two battle groups, plus supporting elements—about 5,000 personnel in total, down from a peak of 10,500. We keep our force levels under constant review and do not keep troops in operational theatres longer than is absolutely necessary.

Barbara Follett

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. Does he accept that although we were right to send troops to Kosovo and East Timor, our current level of commitment is taking its toll on our forces and their families, and that we should do all that we can to reduce the burden on them?

Mr. Hoon

I agree that we should aim to reduce our commitments where it is prudent to do so. I am aware of the demands placed on our armed forces and their families by the problems of overstretch. The recent withdrawals from Kosovo underline our commitment to minimise those problems, and I am pleased to tell the House that, following the recent restructuring of SFOR in Bosnia, about 900 of our service personnel will be home for Christmas. That also means that 900 personnel who were expecting to go to Bosnia will not now be deployed there.

Mr. Martin Bell (Tatton)

Is the Secretary of State aware that there are about 14,000 unexploded cluster bombs lying on the ground in Kosovo, which are in effect aerially sown anti-personnel mines that maim and kill the innocent almost daily? As NATO dropped those bomblets, can NATO also play some part in clearing them?

Mr. Hoon

NATO is playing a considerable part in clearing them. Indeed, United Kingdom troops have cleared more than 1,500 unexploded cluster bomb munitions from our sector—more than 80 per cent. of such unexploded ordnance in that area. KFOR as a whole has cleared more than 3,800 unexploded cluster bomb munitions, in addition to about 4,400 Serbian anti-personnel mines and 2,300 Serbian anti-tank mines.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

Is it true that the Irish Guards is the only unit that does night patrols in Kosovo?

Mr. Hoon

I do not know, but I shall find out and write to my hon. Friend.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex)

It is true.

May I warmly welcome the right hon. Gentleman to his job and tell him, as he already knows, how lucky he is to have it, what fun it will be, and how fascinating he will find it? In the order of battle for Kosovo, as the winter approaches and life becomes tougher, will he consider whether he can find additional engineer reserves, whose prime purpose would be to assist in the necessary work of reconstruction?

Mr. Hoon

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his good wishes. When I am stuck for further information I shall know where to come.

We are considering a variety of ways in which we can assist throughout the winter. Subject to votes in the House, I hope to visit both Bosnia and Kosovo in the next few days. I will consider the hon. Gentleman's specific suggestion and see whether what he asks for is necessary and whether we can carry it through.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Has my right hon. Friend seen the reports that deny the atrocities that occurred in Kosovo? Will he take this opportunity to make it clear that there is enough evidence to show how justified the international community was in taking military action? Is he altogether satisfied that enough is being done to protect the lives of civilian Serbs, who can in no way be held responsible for the crimes and atrocities that occurred, from the thuggish element among the ethnic Albanians, which—however small it may be—is to a large extent the mirror image of its Serbian counterpart?

Mr. Hoon

During one of my previous ministerial responsibilities, I happened to be the Foreign Office Minister on duty when details of atrocities discovered by British forces were first made known. There is no doubt from the evidence that it was necessary for NATO to launch Operation Allied Force to prevent what was undoubtedly an overwhelming humanitarian catastrophe, perpetrated by the forces of Slobodan Milosevic. As for the present security situation, I have had the opportunity of visiting Kosovo and I can tell the House that it is improving. While incidents of intimidation and murder continue to occur, they are declining, and the crime rate in Pristina is lower than in some western cities.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury)

Is not the main lesson of the high continuing commitment in Kosovo and elsewhere that this is an unsuitable time for the Foreign Secretary to offer a blank cheque of further British troops to the United Nations?

Mr. Hoon

My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary did not offer the UN a blank cheque. The information to which the hon. Gentleman refers concerns forces that may be available to the UN in the event of their being requested. That is a standard procedure which has been in operation for many years.

Mr. Harry Cohen (Leyton and Wanstead)

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has said, the crime rate in Kosovo is falling, but it is still high and includes ethnic killings. Will he give a commitment that western forces will act against such killings wherever they come across them? Many of the Kosovan Serbs who fled into Serbia have been treated badly there, and some will in due course wish to return to Kosovo. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that they will be welcomed back into Kosovo, which will become a better, more multi-ethnic place in the future?

Mr. Hoon

I wish to make it clear that KFOR troops are providing robust and even-handed protection for everyone in Kosovo, regardless of their ethnic, religious or cultural background. On one of my visits to Kosovo I had the opportunity to meet representatives of the Serbian community. They made it clear that their people across the border in areas controlled by Milosevic were treated badly and were anxious to return. It is obviously the responsibility of the international community to provide a secure situation in Kosovo so that they can be encouraged to go back to their homes.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green)

May I welcome the right hon. Gentleman to his post? I wish him the best of luck in what is arguably the best job in the Government. The UN document which was mentioned earlier contains a wish list of units and equipment on which it could call. It states that three aircraft capable of heavy lift would be available to the UN, but we have no such aircraft. The action in Kosovo proved the need for them. Will we rent them, or will the right hon. Gentleman undertake to make the decision that was postponed in the summer and order equipment that the armed forces want? I know that the Marines are due to go to Kosovo soon, but we also understand that as a result of the pressure on money—the Government are to cut a further…600 million in the coming Budget—the Marines will not take part in exercises in Norway, as is their usual custom.

Mr. Hoon

I shall deal with all the various points made by the hon. Gentleman but first I thank him for his kind words. He and I debated European matters when we both first arrived in the House of Commons. I am sure that his views on Europe have remained the same, and that we shall debate them again in due course.

There are two separate competitions to supply our forces' requirement for heavy-lift aircraft, in the short term and the long term. Both those competitions are under way, and I anticipate that they will both reach successful conclusions.

The decision about the marines was taken not because of lack of resources. We have heard already today about the pressure that our forces face as a result of their constant involvement in operations. Training in Norway and in Arctic conditions clearly puts a great strain on them. We have sought to relieve that strain by cancelling the operation for this particular year.

Mr. Frank Roy (Motherwell and Wishaw)

I welcome the news that many service personnel will return from Bosnia in time for Christmas with their families. However, will my right hon. Friend assure me that everything will be done to ensure that those accused of war crimes in Bosnia will still be brought to justice?

Mr. Hoon

I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. There will be no let-up in the effort to track down those suspected of war crimes. In fact, British forces have been more successful than the forces of any other nation represented in Bosnia in bringing war criminals to justice. They have worked hard to ensure that none of those accused of war crimes escapes justice.

Forward to