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Mr. Cook: The hon. Gentleman should be in no doubt about the strength with which my hon. Friend the Minister of State and I have expressed our views to Russian Ministers. While we do not have information on the ground, many thousands of civilians must still be sheltering in Grozny. Many of them will be elderly or vulnerable; for them, escape by foot in winter conditions is simply not practical. In those circumstances, we believe that the Russians must withdraw their threat; to persist with it would clearly breach humanitarian obligations.

Mr. Donald Anderson (Swansea, East): The whole House will welcome my right hon. Friend's robust statement. We are all casting around for instruments that might have some effect on the inhuman course of action pursued by the Russian Government. The withdrawal of the tranche by the IMF may not amount to much, because it affects only whether money is transferred from one account to another in Washington. When Russia entered the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, it gave clear undertakings about its human rights obligations. It appears to be in breach of those undertakings. Is it my right hon. Friend's view that the Council of Europe should reconsider its position and possibly suspend Russia?

Mr. Cook: We are awaiting the report of Mr. Gil-Robles, the rapporteur, who went to Chechnya and the surrounding area on 2 and 3 December to report on conditions there. It is certainly a requirement of membership of the Council of Europe to observe standards of humanitarian behaviour and minority rights. It is for the Council of Europe, and for us as a member of it, to consider the report carefully.

Mr. John Maples (Stratford-on-Avon): We share the Foreign Secretary's concern over the Russians' brutal tactics in Chechnya. The deaths, destruction and suffering that result are on an unacceptable scale. We agree with the Foreign Secretary that the threat to bomb civilians who stay in Grozny this weekend is appalling.

I was interested to hear the right hon. Gentleman say that the next tranche of money for the TACIS programme might be suspended. Have there been discussions with our allies about the possibility of other measures being taken to persuade the Russians to change what they are doing? What humanitarian relief is the international community able to provide? In the context of his ethical foreign policy, how would the Foreign Secretary explain to a Chechen refugee the difference between what the Russians are doing in Chechnya and what Milosevic did in Kosovo?

Mr. Cook: We vigorously condemn what the Russians are doing in Chechnya and we vigorously condemned what Milosevic did in Kosovo. We are seeking in every possible way to provide humanitarian aid to the victims of that brutality and persecution. It is not easy to get aid through. We have made a £500,000 donation to the Red Cross effort and we are considering what contribution we can make to the UN agencies. In the meantime, I continue to press Mr. Ivanov to ensure that the international

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humanitarian agencies have full access to the refugees inside and outside Chechnya. We shall be considering what further measures can be taken with our close allies over the next 24 hours. I have already discussed the issue with Madeleine Albright.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North): No one can have any illusions about the forces who are fighting the Russians. I am sure that my right hon. Friend remembers the savage beheading of three British citizens and one New Zealander. However, does my right hon. Friend recognise how deeply shocked those of us who accept the legitimacy of what the Russians are trying to do are by their brutal indifference to the sufferings of civilians in the area? If my right hon. Friend, together with the United States and others, can communicate that to the leadership of Russia, perhaps it will do some good.

Mr. Cook: My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the terrorist and brutal violent crimes that have given rise to Russia's serious and legitimate concerns about the situation in Chechnya. Five British citizens have been kidnapped over the past year and three of them have been brutally murdered. Like my hon. Friend, I find it hard to understand how the current military offensive will tackle that problem. If one wants to defeat terrorism, one has to isolate the terrorists. My anxiety is that the behaviour of the Russian military in Chechnya is likely to create a radicalised younger generation who may well be more readily recruited as terrorists.

Mr. Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife): Is not the unpalatable and perhaps embarrassing truth that we--I do not exempt myself or my party from this criticism--have been silent for too long in the face of the mediaeval barbarism being inflicted by the Russian Government on the citizens of Chechnya? Is it not an outrage to issue an ultimatum involving a blanket threat, with the prospect of a blanket attack on civilians, many of whom are too old, too ill and too frightened to escape? If the Russians persist in their brutal treatment of innocent civilians in Chechnya, will the Government consider all possible political, diplomatic and economic responses?

Mr. Cook: I absolutely agree with the right hon. and learned Gentleman's characterisation of the threat to the residents of Grozny. I have seen the text of the leaflet, which says that those who remain will be viewed as terrorists and bandits; they will be destroyed by artillery and aviation. The people to whom that is addressed include thousands of elderly and vulnerable people who cannot do anything about that threat--they cannot leave by Saturday.

I do not accept that we have been silent on the issue. We have repeatedly recorded our concern, and I have expressed it personally to Mr. Ivanov on a number of occasions. However, I would accept that obviously we have failed to get that message across. Therefore, we must consider stronger ways of doing so, consistent with maintaining what must be a strategic priority--to maintain the dialogue that we need to help create a democratic and stable Russia.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow): Should we not be a little candid with each other? Where did the Russians get

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the idea that high-altitude bombing, to save casualties at home and political embarrassment, might be a way of conducting modern warfare? Where did they get the idea of a military offensive against civilian populations? It could not have been, could it, from NATO--from the marketplace at Nis, from Zastava, from Pancevo and from the centre of Belgrade? In any talks, ought not we to be candid about the fact that NATO has at least given them the excuse to do these terrible things?

Mr. Cook: I would wholly repudiate any parallelism between the conduct of the Russian military in Chechnya and the NATO bombing in the context of Kosovo. I point out to my hon. Friend that at least 300,000 Chechens--probably more--have been rendered refugees and displaced people by the action of the Russian military. In Kosovo, 800,000 people were driven out of Kosovo not by NATO, but by the forces of Belgrade. Those 800,000 people would still be in tents in Macedonia and Albania if we had followed my hon. Friend's advice.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood): May I express my appreciation to the Foreign Secretary for coming to the House to answer the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) on this grave crisis, which may yet prove to be the touchstone of the Foreign Secretary's ethical foreign policy? Can he assure the House that, at the forthcoming European summit in Helsinki, he will allow not just token measures to be applied, but the most rigorous sanctions? Is it not the case that, if the Russians get away with indiscriminate mass murder--as they are perpetrating now--they will be encouraged to assert themselves and throw their weight around not only within the federation but, potentially, outside it? When the Foreign Secretary looks at the question of a stable Russia, will he take into account the fact that this must mean fulfilling the aspirations and special needs of particular peoples within the federation in a flexible manner?

Mr. Cook: We respect the integrity of the Russian Federation, and nobody is seeking to change that. Part of the conditions for membership of the Council of Europe--of which Russia is a member--is respect for those minority rights. If this threat is carried out on Saturday, the European Council--which will be meeting that day in Helsinki--must respond with those measures that are available to it.

I have indicated that we will be asking the European Union to consider the future of the technical and financial help that we provide to Russia. I stress that not all of that is available to be withdrawn without damaging our national interest. Part of it, for instance, helps fund the destruction of chemical weapons within Russia. We are not going to withdraw that programme. However, we must look clearly and firmly at how we can indicate our dismay and alarm at the current behaviour within Chechnya.

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax): I share my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary's alarm and dismay at Russia's ultimatum to the Chechen people, and say to him that I think that the bombing of civilians is always wrong. Has not NATO's illegal bombing of Yugoslavia robbed us of any moral authority to intervene on behalf of Chechens? The Russians have learned from NATO, as my

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hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) said: bomb from a safe distance and disregard civilians. Let us not forget that NATO bombs killed 1,500 civilians in Yugoslavia, and 4,000 were injured. People are still dying from cluster bombs dropped by NATO.


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