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Serbia and Kosovo

1 pm

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow): This is a stuffy, smelly, airless room that is no substitute for the Chamber.

Since 10 June 1999, when the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation entered Kosovo, no fewer than 200,000 non-Serbs have left the province, and that trend continues. The new wave of refugees has added more difficulties to the economy, which was partly destroyed as a result of NATO bombing, with the additional burden of many years of sanctions.

This winter, only 30 per cent. of homes in Serbia are adequately heated. Those that are well heated are the ones with gas heating, and Russia has greatly alleviated the shortage of energy by providing gas. However, 70 per cent. of homes are poorly heated or not heated at all, and all the hospitals are inadequately heated.

We must bear it in mind that one element of Yugoslavia's energy system--oil--is in short supply because of sanctions. Those who have oil heating are trying to switch to electricity, which is costly. The problem affects pensioners in particular, whose pensions are often not more than DM60 a month--roughly Euro 24. They simply cannot afford to pay the electricity bills.

Schools are also inadequately heated. In December and early January, the temperatures in Yugoslavia were as low as minus 13 deg. Yugoslav people, a great many of whom have little or no political persuasion, feel that the American and British Governments are putting an extra strain on their prolonged suffering. As a result of poor heating, the recent flu epidemic, which was serious enough here, hit Serbia even more seriously, and information is now emerging that doctors and pharmacists do not have even the most basic medication.

Owing to NATO intervention and the continuation of sanctions, the most vulnerable people in society are suffering--children, the sick and the old. As the Minister knows, along with my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon) and several others, I bitterly opposed the bombing before it happened and the hypocritical actions of politicians. The contrasts with Chechnya are becoming all too apparent.

In Kosovo, not a day goes by without Serbs being killed. Many non-Albanians are physically abused and kidnapped, and Serbian houses are being bombed and torched. Most information comes out of the region via refugees in Kosovo and radio amateurs. It is rather difficult to explain why the British Government and the British press are not reporting such news--of which they were full months ago--about what is really happening.

On 7 January, the Orthodox Christmas day, at 8.30 am, in Prizren, two Serb women on their way to church were killed by Albanian extremists. An effort has been made to find out about the incident, but I am told that neither the United Nations nor KFOR would co-operate. However, Susan Manuel, a UN spokeswoman, stated that on Wednesday 5 January, a 39-year-old Serb was shot three times in the head, also in Prizren. With the number of non-Albanians now being killed and the violence not decreasing, the authorities are withholding the names of those who have been killed or abused.

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On 9 January, at 1.30 pm, an Albanian killed a Serb, Rodoljub Gasic, aged 47, who was sawing up logs in front of his house. KFOR members arrived to investigate the incident one hour later, even though it happened in Gnjilane, near the KFOR post. KFOR is overseeing what is little less than the genocide of Serbs in Kosovo. As a further example, in the town of Vitina, of a population of 3,000 Serbs many have been killed and only about 800 remain. Those who remain live in ghettos.

Further relevant facts illustrate the situation in Kosovo. Graveyards in Prizren and Urosevac, as in other parts of Kosovo, have been destroyed and desecrated. Fifty-six churches have been destroyed, and some were even bombed during the Orthodox Christmas. Unexploded cluster bombs that NATO dropped throughout Kosovo are taking their toll. The first question of which I gave notice related to cluster bombs. What is being done about the Human Rights Watch report?

Several hon. Members attended a very moving session with Professor Douglas Rokke, a patriotic American who was head of one of the investigating units. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office knew about his visit, and I said that there was a full report in The Scotsman under the bylines of Tim Llewelyn and Conal Urquhart. Does the Minister have anything to say about that? My third point relates to policy towards enclaves and the idea that, in order to protect such Serbs as remain, enclaves should be formed.

My fourth point is perhaps less weighty, but I ask for comment nevertheless. When my friend Craig Brown, the Scottish football team manager, proposed that the Scottish side might play in Belgrade, a ton of coals descended on his head for making such a suggestion. I may be wrong, but I thought that we had no quarrel with the Serb people. If that is so, what is the Government's attitude towards Craig Brown's proposal?

My fifth point relates to the speeding up of a film about the Grdelica train bombing, in which at least 14 civilians were killed. A videotape shown by NATO to explain the killing of those civilians on a train on a bridge in Serbia last April was shown at triple speed. The alliance has tried to excuse the killing of those civilians by saying that the train was travelling too fast for the missiles' trajectory to be changed in time. As I understand it, NATO war planes fired two missiles at the 50 m long bridge over the Juzna Morava river at Klisura, some 300 km south of Belgrade, on 12 April during the campaign to force Belgrade's troops to leave Kosovo.

NATO's supreme commander in Europe, General Clark, shortly afterwards showed two videotapes of the train apparently travelling fast on the bridge, and said that it had been impossible to alter the missiles' trajectories. The German press said that the two videotapes were shown at three times normal speed. A spokesman for NATO's military command in Mons in Belgium acknowledged in a telephone interview with Agence France-Presse that those images had been altered by "a technical problem.

Yesterday, along with George Alagiah and the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Bell), I took part in a long Esther Rantzen programme at Television Centre, in

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which I had an exchange with Jamie Shea on the issue. Mr. Shea's answers were totally unconvincing. I wonder whether the Government have a more convincing answer.

I leave time for the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall).

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Nicholas Winterton ): Order. The hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) suggested that he would like the hon. Member for Uxbridge to take part. Has either of them notified the Minister and sought his approval?

Mr. Dalyell : Of course. I sent copies of my letters to Madam Speaker to the Foreign Office.

Mr. Deputy Speaker : I am grateful, as that is courteous and appropriate.

1.10 pm

Mr. John Randall (Uxbridge): I am grateful to have the opportunity to take part in the debate. I feel privileged to follow the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell). Not only do I agree with everything that he has said so far, even down to his comment about the atmosphere of the Chamber, but he provides an example to me as a new Member of the targets that a Back Bencher can and should achieve.

The hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. Keetch) and I were fortunate to visit Montenegro a few weeks ago as part of a delegation from the Westminster Foundation for Democracy. We had the opportunity to speak to representatives of all the political parties and many other organisations from that country, and were fortunate also to speak to members of Serbian opposition parties who had travelled to Podgorica to discuss matters with us.

Some of us have believed for a long time, although it is generally disregarded in this and other western countries, that the NATO bombing had only a negative effect on the opposition forces trying to bring real democracy to Serbia. The opposition parties told us repeatedly that their job has been made 10 times worse. One of the main culprits that they blamed for their lack of movement was the American Government, who for a long time sustained the Milosevic regime because they could do business with it. When there might have been an opposition boycott of elections, the American envoy pooh-poohed the idea. Opposition parties regarded that as a major setback to their own progress towards democracy.

The opposition is highly fragmented and demoralised, and there is a plethora of opposition parties. There are more than 180 political parties in Serbia and a current joke, if it can be called a joke, is that, if two Serbs are in a room, the result will be three political parties.

There are one or two encouraging signs. Students have started a movement rather than a political party, which is called Otpor, and I sincerely hope that the British Government will give not only moral support but something more concrete to those who want to bring real change to the country.

There is a great feeling among the people in Serbia that they have been victimised, although we keep saying that our argument is not with them. A readily acceptable

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way to show that would be to have some visits from sports teams, such as the visit from the Scottish football team that the hon. Member for Linlithgow mentioned. Something of that nature would establish relations not at a political level, but at a human one. I suggest that Red Star Belgrade, which has now been depoliticised, might be a suitable opposition. There is an hon. Member connected with Coventry City football club--I believe that Coventry is twinned with Belgrade--so something of that sort could be possible. Such an event would help the Serbian people to realise that our argument is not with them, but with the regime.

I cannot stress the need to relax sanctions strongly enough, especially those on air travel, which affect Montenegro as well as Serbia. It was suggested to me that the sanctions against certain members of the regime and the ruling party would be more effective if other people could travel freely while they were denied access. The blanket nature of sanctions means that we are victimising a nation for the actions of a few.

I cannot think of a better way to start the process of bringing Serbia back into the international community than building bridges, which would be symbolic and actual. It would not simply be moral or intended to improve people's lives. There is also a commercial reason. I have heard that many of our European Union partners are busy quietly behind the scenes, working to establish contacts, and I fear that when relations are normalised, the British Government and the British people will be the losers.

1.17 pm

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Keith Vaz): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) on securing the debate. He is one of the Members of Parliament whom I most admire, and I know that he has deep concerns about the issue. I recognise his generosity in allowing the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) to contribute to the debate. I know of his interest in the matter.

My hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow referred to the situation in Kosovo and Serbia. I hope that hon. Members will find it useful if I address the subject of what Britain and our partners in the international community are doing to tackle the challenges, both immediate and longer term, that we face in the Balkans.

The successive crises of former Yugoslavia over the past decade show that the greatest obstacle to progress remains the policies of ethnic hatred and violence pursued by the regime of President Milosevic. He laid the seeds for conflict in Kosovo 10 years ago when he robbed that province of its autonomy.

Throughout the 1990s, despite international pressure, Milosevic refused to address legitimate demands from Kosovo Albanians for a political settlement. When those demands became radicalised, his forces responded with wholly disproportionate violence. Milosevic threw away the chance for a peaceful solution to Kosovo. That was bad enough, but, at the same time as his delegation pretended to negotiate a Kosovo settlement, his forces began an offensive, not only attacking the Kosovo Liberation Army but terrifying innocent men, women and children and driving them from their homes.

Faced with the need to avert an humanitarian disaster, all 19 Governments of NATO were clear that the alliance had to act. NATO's intervention was an

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important setback to the policies of extreme nationalism, which have done such damage in the former Yugoslavia during the past decade. We now have the opportunity to press home our advantage and push for genuine change throughout the region.

Let me start with Kosovo. My hon. Friend kindly contacted my office yesterday to forewarn me of several questions that he was planning to ask today, which he has indeed asked. In the time available, I can give him only brief answers, but if he wishes, I should be happy to write to him after the debate to give him more details.

My hon. Friend referred to the recent press reports about the air strike on 12 April on the railroad bridge at Grdelica, in which a train crossing the bridge was hit accidentally. NATO has acknowledged that, by accident, the video footage of the incident was played back at higher than normal speed. It went to great lengths to avoid civilian casualties. A handful of accidents occurred out of 8,000 bombing missions. NATO's painstaking approach stands in stark contrast to the brutality of the Milosevic regime's ethnic cleansing policy.

My hon. Friend referred also to the use of cluster bombs in Kosovo. KFOR, including United Kingdom troops, has made a major effort to clear cluster bombs from Kosovo. The United Kingdom sector is now 80 per cent. clear. KFOR has also had the huge task of clearing mines left by Serb forces in Kosovo. Clearance efforts have concentrated on highly populated areas, including schools, of which more than 600 have now been cleared. Several deaths and injuries have occurred as a result of unexploded cluster bombs, which is why the clearance effort is so important.

My hon. Friend also referred to the use of depleted uranium. That was not used by United Kingdom troops. It is not prohibited by any international convention. It is not regarded by the International Commission on Non-Ionising Radiation Protection as a health hazard.

My hon. Friend also wrote to my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary about the press reports that the Scotland football team had been invited to play against the former Yugoslav republic, a point that he repeated today and that was also referred to by the hon. Member for Uxbridge. We do not discourage sporting links with the FRY, but the Scottish Football Association will doubtless wish to take into account the Foreign Office's advice on travel to Serbia and the lack of international flights into Belgrade.

Let me cover briefly the Government's approach to Kosovo. We have an opportunity in Kosovo to build a society based on modern European values: plural democracy, free media, open markets and the rule of law. The rebuilding of Kosovo is a massive task after decades of neglect and destruction wrought by Serbian oppression. The international community is making a massive investment through the UN mission, the NATO-led Kosovo force and bilateral aid via charities and non-governmental organisations. Britain continues rightly to play a leading role.

Since March last year, the Department for International Development has committed Euro 90 million to Kosovo: first, for humanitarian relief and now for

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rebuilding. British expertise, our soldiers and police officers have played an exceptional role. Progress has been made, but serious problems remain.

My hon. Friend raised the situation of minorities in Kosovo. The security situation, particularly for the minorities, remains of real concern to the Government. Many Serbs and other minorities fled Kosovo following the withdrawal of Serb forces in June. Some may have had good reason to flee, fearing indictment for war crimes, but many simply feared that they would be victims of revenge killings. Many left following violence and intimidation.

The European Union has made clear our condemnation of ethnic violence on any side. We have said that our substantial contribution to rebuilding Kosovo--as much as 500 million euros next year--would be affected if ethnic violence and intimidation continued. KFOR and the United Nations mission in Kosovo--UNMIK--are devoting a lot of time and effort to protecting the Serbs and other minorities in Kosovo. British soldiers live with Serb families in Pristina. They escort old people to the shops and younger people to schools and places of work, but that can be only a temporary solution, dealing with the symptoms rather than the disease. The lasting answer lies in building confidence among the communities and fostering hope and reconciliation.

Hon. Members have asked today why we are not helping to rebuild Serbia as we are helping in Kosovo. Our response is quite clear. The responsibility for what has gone wrong in Serbia rests with Milosevic, not with us. The targets that NATO hit in Serbia were chosen because of their high military value to the regime, which was conducting appalling repression in Kosovo. NATO's campaign was legitimate; it was necessitated by the actions of the Belgrade Government and Belgrade must take full responsibility for the results.

We have no quarrel with the people of Serbia. Our problem is with their leadership. We want Serbia to take its rightful place in the mainstream of modern Europe. It should, like its neighbours, including Montenegro, be participating in the stability pact and thus benefit from foreign investment, trade and co-operation, but Serbia cannot take part while it is ruled by men who are indicted for crimes against humanity. The EU and NATO are united on that, which is why we believe economic sanctions targeted on the regime should remain in place until there is real political change.

International policy is neither passive nor negative. We want to act to encourage change in Serbia. The European Union has set out in a public declaration to the people of Serbia the new opportunities of trade, investment and closer relations that will open up once again when they replace their current Government with a body that embraces the values of democracy, pluralism and tolerance. Last year, the British Government set up a special Euro 3 million fund to provide help and support for the independent media and civil society across the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. We are working to develop a professional, liberal media. We are running a series of conferences to bring together leading figures in Serbian society and the democratic opposition with their counterparts in Britain. We are

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building co-operation between United Kingdom local authorities and municipalities in Serbia that are run by the democratic opposition.

Mr. Dalyell : What did the Secretary of State for International Development mean when she said that the west was ready to move if there was a health catastrophe in Serbia? Do we have plans to help in the event of such a catastrophe?

Mr. Vaz : We are always watching and monitoring the situation carefully. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development was saying that Britain stands ready to help in any way. I have demonstrated in my speech today how much support we have given in Serbia.

The international community is in place on the ground in Serbia providing genuine humanitarian help. That will continue throughout winter and beyond. We must be wary, however, of playing into Milosevic's hands. His regime exercises control, often through corruption and cronies, across much of the Serbian economy, public and private sector alike. He, his family and their political and business allies have grown rich over the years as they have led their country into economic isolation and impoverishment. We must ensure that our aid is targeted carefully and that it goes to the families of those in need, not to the bank accounts of those who seek to exploit them.

I am sorry that I have not had the time this afternoon to answer all the points about Montenegro that my hon. Friend has mentioned. However, my door is open if he wishes to discuss with me the results of his visit to Montenegro and I shall be more than happy to see him. The Government remain committed to ensuring that the region is peaceful and prosperous once again.

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