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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

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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. Vedrine, 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

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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.

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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:

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?

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