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3.30 pm

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Robin Cook): With permission, I wish to make a statement on recent developments concerning Kosovo.

In mid-June, in response to demands from the international community, President Milosevic gave an undertaking not to carry out repressive action against the civilian population. That undertaking lasted for barely one month.

By late July, the Yugoslav army and the Ministry of Interior police had commenced a widespread campaign of repression throughout Kosovo. During that campaign, they made no distinction between armed guerrillas and unarmed civilians. Whole villages were shelled, crops were burnt in the field and farm animals were incinerated in their barns. A quarter of a million people--a tenth of the entire population--have become refugees.

In September, Britain and France presented to the Security Council resolution 1199, which demanded that President Milosevic cease fire; withdraw his security forces; allow refugees to return to their villages; and make a rapid start to real negotiations on self-government for Kosovo.

Two weeks ago, Britain chaired a meeting of the contact group at Heathrow. That meeting sent Dick Holbrooke back to Belgrade with a mandate from all members of the contact group, including Russia, to secure an agreement that complied with the demands of the Security Council resolution.

Last Monday, NATO unanimously took the decision to authorise air strikes on Serbian military targets. The next day, President Milosevic gave his agreement to Dick Holbrooke on a settlement that commits Yugoslavia to full compliance with resolution 1199.

There can be no Member of the House who imagines that President Milosevic would have made such a commitment if the diplomatic efforts backed by the contact group had not also been backed by the credible threat of military action by NATO. His draconian steps to close the independent press to prevent it from reporting the agreements in full underlines his dislike of being forced into them.

A key concern that drove forward our efforts over the past month was the serious risk to the homeless refugees hiding on the hillsides of Kosovo. Our most immediate concern was to enable those refugees to return to sheltered settlements before winter. I am pleased to tell the House that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the Red Cross have been able to return to their relief work in Kosovo, and that the latest evidence suggests that refugees have started to return to their settlements. Britain has already pledged £3 million to the international aid effort.

A central part of the Holbrooke package was the agreement by President Milosevic to a political framework to deliver self-government for Kosovo. This is the first time that President Milosevic has accepted the principle of self-government for Kosovo.

That political framework provides that the police in Kosovo will be under local control. There is a commitment to free and fair elections to a Kosovo

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assembly and to communal administrations. These elections will be supervised not by Belgrade, but by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe. Belgrade has been pressured to agree to a tight timetable, which commits it to an agreement with the Kosovars on the central issues by 2 November.

The international community has no intention of leaving President Milosevic to choose whether or not he honours the commitments that he has given. That is why Belgrade has been obliged to sign two separate agreements on verification. The first agreement, with the OSCE, provides for the presence throughout the whole of Kosovo of 2,000 representatives of the international community. The agreement authorises them to verify the maintenance of the ceasefire; to monitor and accompany movements of the security forces and the police; to facilitate the return of refugees; and to supervise elections, the establishment of Kosovar institutions, and the development of a locally accountable police force.

The second agreement is with NATO, and obliges President Milosevic to accept daily overflight of Kosovo by NATO reconnaissance planes to monitor movements of the security forces and to verify compliance with the ceasefire. The agreement compels the Yugoslav authorities to switch off all relevant radar systems when NATO flights are taking place, and is a retreat from President Milosevic's position hitherto, which has been that NATO could have no role within Yugoslav sovereign territory.

The verification mission will not be armed because it is not there to enforce the agreements. The agreements do, however, enable both verification missions to report to NATO. The importance that NATO attaches to compliance by Yugoslavia was spelt out to Belgrade by Javier Solana, the Secretary-General of NATO, who said after meeting Milosevic that NATO

if Milosevic does not meet his obligations.

In the meantime, NATO has maintained its air activation order while the two verification missions are put in place.

We also expect the Kosovo Liberation Army to abide by its commitment to honour a ceasefire. Over the weekend, there have been several breaches of the ceasefire by the Kosovo Liberation Army, including the murder of four policemen. Such continuing acts of hostility serve only the interests of those who wish to undermine the political process and return to war.

It would be a grave mistake to imagine that the Holbrooke package marks the end of the international community's pressure on President Milosevic. It is only the beginning of a process that will require the full commitment of the international community to achieve stability, security and reconstruction in Kosovo.

Britain is ready to play its part in making this agreement work. We have already committed ourselves to providing 150 members of the OSCE mission, with the expectation of a further commitment to a total of 200.

On Friday, I announced that a British Major-General with considerable experience in Bosnia would head the British contribution. He and the advance party are now already in Pristina.

We will also provide Canberra aircraft to the NATO air operation over Kosovo and will supply British personnel to the NATO unit in Macedonia, which will co-ordinate the two verification missions on the ground and in the air.

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As the President-in-Office of the Security Council, Britain is taking a leading role in drafting a Security Council resolution that enshrines the commitments which President Milosevic has given and underwrites the agreements with the full authority of the United Nations.

I shall leave tonight on a tour of three of the neighbours of Yugoslavia to assure them of our continuing commitment to security and stability in the region. While in Macedonia, I intend to meet leaders of the Kosovar Albanians.

As I said last week at the Paris meeting of the contact group, the agreements are not perfect. International agreements rarely are perfect. There is, however, nothing to be gained by wasting our time wishing we had a different agreement. The reasonable approach must be for us to do everything we can to make this agreement work. It will take great effort by the international community to deliver on its contribution, and it will take heavy pressure on President Milosevic to ensure that he sticks to his side of the bargain.

Britain played a leading part within the international community in putting the pressure on President Milosevic that made these agreements possible. Britain is now demonstrating that we are among the first nations to make a practical contribution towards making a success of the agreements. We will not let up on our efforts until President Milosevic carries out his commitment to withdraw forces, and until the people of Kosovo can return to their homes without fear, can rebuild their villages in peace and can start to construct a self-governing Kosovo without repression from Belgrade.

Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe): I am grateful to the Foreign Secretary for his statement, and for the modestly encouraging news that he has reported to the House. Does he not acknowledge that, if action had been taken along these lines in March or April, as I then urged, hundreds of lives would have been saved, hundreds of thousands of people would still be living in their homes and enormous suffering and anguish would have been prevented?

Will the right hon. Gentleman now apologise for the inaccurate information that he gave this House on 14 July, when he told us that he had introduced a ban on flights into Britain by Serbian airlines? Is it not the case--as we discovered in September--that not only was that not true but that, as late as 11 September, Foreign Office Ministers were claiming that there were clear legal reasons why it was necessary to give 12 months' notice before implementing such a ban? Why was it that what were clear legal reasons on 11 September had mysteriously vanished five days later, on 16 September, when we were told that 12 months' notice was no longer necessary? Can the Foreign Secretary confirm that that ban is now, at last, in place?

On the agreement that has now been reached, what consultation took place with representatives of the majority Albanian population of Kosovo? Why was it that a deadline for implementation was imposed and then postponed for 10 days? Did that not give precisely the wrong signal to President Milosevic?

Is it the case that the NATO planning group which has been working on contingency plans for intervention should the agreement be breached has now been stood down? If so, why?

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What can the right hon. Gentleman tell us about how the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe monitors will operate? Has a clear chain of command yet been established? Will he comment on today's worrying reports of large-scale Serbian troop movements in, but not out of, Kosovo, and the cancellation of refugee aid convoys? Will he undertake to keep the House informed of the progress, or lack of it, in the implementation of the agreement? What can he tell us about the action to be taken if Milosevic does not honour the obligations that he has made?

The agreement that has been reached is to be welcomed, but on the basis of "better late than never". We must all hope that it works, but it is certainly no cause for self-congratulation.

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