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Mr. Hoon: Let me make it quite clear to the hon. Gentleman--it did not happen. He should know better than to stand up in the House of Commons and make assertions that he cannot substantiate, particularly when he has heard me deny any suggestion that the officer was put under any kind of pressure. If the hon. Gentleman wants a civilised debate, he should refrain from making such allegations when he knows full well that I have previously denied that the officer was put under pressure from my office. I have made that absolutely clear.
Mr. Blunt: I was not referring to what happened with Sir John Day. I was not there, so I do not know what happened. It has been put on the record and the record will attest to it. I was referring to what happened at the beginning of the Kosovo campaign when the Chief of the Defence Staff wrote three articles in the space of a week advocating the Government's position, which was plainly at variance with the military advice that he was giving to the Secretary of State at the time.
Mr. Hoon: I do not accept that. The hon. Gentleman must appreciate that if he gets up and makes assertions following on from one of his colleagues on a particular subject, it is not unreasonable for people to think that he is talking about the same subject. I resist absolutely any suggestion that uniformed officers were used for propaganda purposes on behalf of the Government. That is absurd and it is not the case.
The armed forces have played a major role. Over the past year, they have helped create the stability that has allowed roads, power stations, bridges and railways to be repaired. They have also played a vital role in protecting and reassuring minorities. In these and many other ways, our forces continue to apply their skill and experience to help the people of Kosovo rebuild their communities.
Some people still suggest that we were wrong to have fought the Kosovo campaign. Such a judgment flies in the face of the evidence. British forces made a huge contribution to the success of the NATO operation.
There are, of course, lessons to learn. There has never been a campaign anywhere or at any time when that was not the case. Over the past year, with the progress we have made on European defence, the announcements on sea lift and air lift, new secure communications for the Royal Air Force and new precision-guided munitions, we have acted quickly to implement the required reforms.
Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Inverclyde): My question is on Kosovo, a province that I visited along with other members of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs. How many Ministry of Defence police officers are serving with the international police force? Is it not the case that such police officers can serve a six-month rather than a 12-month tour of duty? Does that not make it more attractive for our officers to serve in Kosovo?
Mr. Hoon: I hope that my hon. Friend will forgive me, but I do not have the precise figure to hand. However, I will certainly write to him. Any change that we can make by way of service intervals to make such tours of duty more attractive will be useful.
Our forces have not only been part of international operations in Bosnia and Kosovo; British troops have played a leading part in promoting stability and providing support to the United Nations peacekeeping operation in Sierra Leone. In May, following renewed fighting between Government and rebel forces in Sierra Leone, British armed forces moved at very short notice to secure Lungi airport to allow the evacuation of British nationals and other entitled people, and to enable the United Nations to bring in reinforcements.
Forces from all three services under joint command deployed rapidly to a country halfway across the world, arriving within hours of the final decision to go. At the peak of the mission, more than 5,000 personnel were involved. Having achieved the clear objectives that we set at the outset, we withdrew our combat forces. Conducted in difficult circumstances, the operation was without doubt an unqualified success.
Mr. Chidgey: May I join the Secretary of State in congratulating the performance of our troops in Kosovo and Sierra Leone? I visited Kosovo with the Foreign Affairs Committee, and was delighted to see how well the troops had done, particularly as we were, in the main, first in. The Royal Green Jackets and the Princess of Wales's Royal Regiment, both from my area, performed exceptionally well. However, the underlying concern, now and in the future, is that the troops performed amazingly well, with great credit to this country, but had to overcome many problems in the logistics and lack of preparedness exposed in the Defence Committee's report. I seek an assurance that, in the theatres of the Balkans, and in
Mr. Hoon: I made it clear that there are lessons to be learned in any campaign. That has always been true in history, and it will be the case in the future. We will respond specifically to the Select Committee report. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we will implement the lessons learned, as we have begun to do already. It is not surprising that there are difficulties--these are difficult and dangerous campaigns. We must study what went wrong, if things went wrong.
The Government will see through their commitment to Sierra Leone. We are determined to help to turn that country around. We do not want the people of Sierra Leone to be once again subject to rebel brutality. Our most important contribution is undoubtedly our extensive programme to provide the Sierra Leone army with the skills and training that it needs to underpin the authority of the democratically elected Government. This is not a short-term commitment--our original plans for the international training team envisaged a three-year programme.
We have temporarily increased the level of support we have given since June, by providing a series of short-term training teams. We expect, however, to be reducing the number of personnel we have committed to training in Sierra Leone from next spring.
We have also increased our support to the United Nations peacekeeping force. At the UN's request, we now have staff officers working in the UNAMSIL headquarters, and we have reaffirmed our readiness to deploy elements of our rapid reaction force to support UN peacekeeping missions, including Sierra Leone.
In case there were any doubt that we take this commitment seriously, I announced to the House on Monday that, for a limited period, we shall divert an amphibious-ready group, comprising elements of our joint rapid reaction forces, off Sierra Leone. This deployment is a practical demonstration of our rapid reaction capability and our practical support for Sierra Leone.
Our involvement with Sierra Leone has not been without cost. In September, British forces took part in an extraordinarily brave and daring rescue of the Royal Irish Regiment soldiers who had been taken hostage. I am sure that the whole House will join me in paying tribute to the skill, courage and professionalism of the forces involved. In particular, I would like to pay tribute to Bombardier Brad Tinnion, the soldier who died in that operation, and to the others who were injured.
We had exhausted every possible opportunity to resolve the hostage-taking through peaceful means, but when it eventually became clear that that would not be possible, and that the lives of the hostages were at risk, we were right to act. I believe that few, if any, other forces could have achieved what British armed forces did that day. It was a remarkable achievement.
Our forces are professionals. They are trained to deal with danger. That is something our that Royal Air Force pilots have confronted routinely over the past year. Our pilots, along with coalition partners, have continued to patrol the northern and southern no-fly zones over Iraq throughout the year in support of UN Security Council Resolution 688. We have been doing this successfully for nearly 10 years, including right through the Kosovo campaign.
Let me be quite clear--these patrols are humanitarian. Saddam Hussein has used helicopter gun ships against the Kurdish population in the north, and both fixed-wing aircraft and helicopter gun ships against the Shia Muslims of the south. There is no reason to believe that he would not do that again if we ceased our efforts.
Since the beginning of last year, there have been more than 235 violations of the no-fly zones by Saddam's forces, and more than 900 other direct threats against our aircrew, including missile attacks and anti-aircraft fire. Saddam has even offered a bounty for shooting down coalition aircraft.