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24 Mar 1999 : Column 483

Kosovo

9.5 pm

The Deputy Prime Minister (Mr. John Prescott): Earlier this evening, four British aircraft, together with missiles from the submarine HMS Splendid, attacked targets in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia as part of a co-ordinated NATO air strike. Two other aircraft flew supporting missions.

Hon. Members may have heard the Prime Minister's remarks from Berlin earlier this evening, when he said:


I am sure that the House will wish to join me in echoing those sentiments.

The UK Harriers operated out of Gioia del Colle in Italy. In addition, attacks were mounted by seven United States Air Force B52 bombers from Fairford in Gloucestershire.

The strike in which they participated was a very significant one, involving both air-launched and sea-launched cruise missiles and manned aircraft from the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Canada and Spain. A number of other allied air forces flew supporting missions.

The targets being attacked in this first phase were mainly elements of the Yugoslavian air defence system, but also included a number of Serbian military facilities related to the repression in Kosovo.

The NATO military action, which has the full support of all 19 member states, is intended to support the political aims of the international community. It is justified as an exceptional measure to prevent an overwhelming humanitarian catastrophe.

It is, and will continue to be, directed towards disrupting the violent attacks being committed by the Yugoslav army and the Serbian special police force and weakening their ability to continue their repressive strategy.

Two United Nations Security Council resolutions,1199 and 1203, underpin our actions. Both demanded that the Serbs cease all actions against the civilian population and withdraw the security units used for civilian repression. Milosevic has been in breach of every single part of those UN resolutions.

As the Prime Minister said yesterday, 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. Sixty-five thousand people have been forced from their homes in the past month, and no fewer than 25,000 in the days since the peace talks broke down. Families are being uprooted and driven from their homes. There are disturbing reports of the destruction of whole villages.

Over the past few days, we have all seen harrowing and unforgettable images on the television and in newspapers. The scenes are more reminiscent of the middle ages than of Europe on the eve of the 21st century.

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I would remind the House that the decision to initiate air strikes was taken last night only after it became clear that the final diplomatic effort in Belgrade had not met with success and that all efforts to achieve a negotiated political solution to the Kosovo crisis had failed.

Over the past year the international community, with Britain at the forefront, has made intensive efforts to seek a peaceful solution. Milosevic has either rejected these approaches or entered into undertakings on which he has subsequently reneged, notably his blatant failure to observe the limits on army and special police numbers in Kosovo. Military force is now the only option.

NATO's position is clear, and was set out in its statement of 30 January. We seek to bring an end to the violence in order to avert a humanitarian catastrophe and support the completion of negotiations on an interim political settlement.

Three demands were made at the time, all of which Mr. Milosevic has so far rejected: he has not ended his use of excessive and disproportionate force in Kosovo; he has broken the undertaking that he gave last October to reduce Serb forces in Kosovo to pre-February 1998 levels; and he has so far refused to accept the interim political settlement that was negotiated at the peace talks in France earlier this year.

Tonight the NATO alliance--19 nations of which 13 flew their aircraft tonight--has backed its words with action. It has hit hard and it will continue to hit hard until its military objectives are achieved.

What happens next is up to Mr. Milosevic. It remains open to him to show at any time that he is ready to meet the demands of the international community. The demands are reasonable: they are an autonomous Kosovo within Serbia and an international military force to underpin the settlement. We hope that the Yugoslav people will understand that this is the only practical basis on which to move forward without further bloodshed.

I take this opportunity tonight to address a warning to those in the Yugoslav army and other forces who may be in receipt of orders to repress the Albanians in Kosovo: "Do not assume that you can carry out such activity with impunity. You have a personal responsibility not to exceed the bounds of international law. You run the risk of being prosecuted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia at The Hague if you do so."

I also address the Kosovar Albanians: "You have had the courage to commit yourselves to the path of peace. It is imperative that you remain committed to that approach and refrain from provocative actions in the days to come."

Neither NATO nor the United Kingdom is waging war against the people of Yugoslavia. We will make every effort to avoid civilian casualties. Our objective is to reduce the human suffering and violence against the civilian population of Kosovo. We seek to bring to an end the human tragedy now unfolding.

We know the risks of action and we salute the bravery of our service men and women who are undertaking these operations on our behalf. To the families of the brave men and women of our armed forces involved in this action--and indeed to the British people as a whole--I say this: we should remind ourselves that history has proved time and time again that standing up to aggression is the only way to stop such brutal leaders.

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As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said to the House yesterday:


We, as fellow Europeans, cannot contemplate, on our own doorstep, a disintegration into chaos and disorder.

This is indeed a grave moment. Those who have doubted NATO's resolve have been shown to be wrong. We are prepared to see this through. We do not expect that air attacks will lead to an instant end to the brutality in Kosovo--Yugoslavia has a substantial military machine and is under the control of a ruthless man. But our attacks will make it clear to the president and his security forces that if they continue to use excessive force in Kosovo, they will pay a very high price indeed.

Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden): I thank the Deputy Prime Minister for his statement. As he says, this is a grave moment and our forces are engaged in a perilous mission. We join him in giving our armed forces our full support and we have total confidence in their skill, courage and ability. We share with their families and loved ones the combination of pride and anxiety that they must be feeling.

As my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition said yesterday, we support the Government in the action that they have taken. We also entirely support and endorse the warning that the Prime Minister has given to those who may contemplate using disproportionate and inhumane methods in the province of Kosovo.

Will the Deputy Prime Minister confirm that the action is aimed at military targets and that every effort will be made to avoid civilian casualties?

Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm--even if it is not appropriate to spell them out in public--that NATO has clear criteria by which it will judge the success of its action? In view of the accusation by Russia that this is an act of aggression, will he take the opportunity to set out clearly for the House the legal basis for NATO's action? In view of the massive movements of refugees to which the Prime Minister referred yesterday, can the right hon. Gentleman tell the House what action the Government are taking to help the Governments of Albania and Macedonia cope with the consequences of this tide of human misery?

Tomorrow's debate will allow the Foreign Secretary and the Secretary of State for Defence to update the House, and will allow Members to discuss this matter in more detail. However, can the right hon. Gentleman give an assurance that he will keep the House fully informed as developments unfold?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I am grateful for the support offered by the right hon. Gentleman--which is shared on both sides of the House--for the Government's action. I can confirm that our targets are totally military, and not civilian. I understand the concern of the Russians about the legal justification--to which the right hon. Gentleman referred--but the use of force is justified under international law to prevent an overwhelming humanitarian disaster. We believe that what is happening

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in Kosovo could be such a disaster, and that is the legal justification for our action on this occasion. We will review what we can do to help Macedonia and Albania, and perhaps in the debate tomorrow we can give further information to the right hon. Gentleman. The House can be assured that we will continue to keep it informed, as we have tried to do this evening by reporting to it on the very first occasion when we could make a statement.


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