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6.33 pm

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): First, I apologise to the House for my absence from the Chamber during the middle of the debate. I hope that all right hon. and hon. Members will understand why, in these very particular circumstances, I have not been present in the Chamber for as long as I would normally have been, and for as long as I should have liked.

The question of the tragic crash in the Black sea has been raised. A Russian TU154 travelling from Tel Aviv to Russia crashed into the Black sea. We understand that 66 passengers and 10 to 12 crew were on board; sadly, all are believed to have died. It is too soon to say what was the cause of that unfortunate crash. A number of theories are doing the rounds, but it is better for the moment that we do not rush to any early conclusions. It is important, though, that the House should express its concern for the victims and their families, and the Government will certainly be writing to both the Russian and Israeli Governments to express our condolences.

The scale of the terror that faced the world on 11 September went beyond anything that we had seen before. The exact numbers of those killed are still not known and may not be known for many days, or even weeks, more, but it is clear that some 6,000 people lost their lives in those appalling attacks.

We have seen suicide attacks before, but never causing death on such a scale. As the Prime Minister said, it was a turning point in our history. Our world now looks a very different place. We now face new challenges—from the terrorists responsible for the attacks on the United States and from others using similar tactics.

Two tasks lie ahead: we must bring those responsible for the events of 11 September to account, along with all those who support, harbour and protect them; and we must deal with the wider threat of the evil of international terrorism.

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Our message to Osama bin Laden has been absolutely clear. We know that he is guilty. Information that the Prime Minister has placed in the Library of the House makes that quite clear. We will bring him to account. Our message to the Taliban has also been clear. The world is watching them. Their chance to surrender the terrorists and end their support for terrorism is fast running out. In answer to the question from the shadow Foreign Secretary, that is our aim: to remove the support for terrorism in Afghanistan, and to show that such support will not be tolerated elsewhere.

As a number of right hon. and hon. Members have said, the United States has shown great dignity and restraint since 11 September. We commend its refusal to lash out in instant revenge. Whatever action is taken, in self-defence and within the UN charter, must be proportionate and carefully targeted—compatible with legitimate self-defence in accordance with international law. It will therefore be rules-based, as was requested and required by my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Ms King). We recognise that it must target the guilty, and wherever possible, avoid harming the innocent. We recognise that it may take time, and may risk lives, but we recognise, too, that the time for forceful military action against Osama bin Laden, his associates, and—if they do not act—those who support them, is undoubtedly coming.

A shadow of evil and death fell across New York, Washington and Pennsylvania on 11 September. It fell across the United States. It fell across the whole free world—but from that shadow some good must emerge. We face a choice. We could cower in the face of this threat, or we can destroy it. With our allies, we are determined to eliminate terrorism as a force in international affairs.

The United Kingdom will play a full and active role in working to achieve those objectives. To do otherwise would be to ignore our responsibilities as a close ally of the United States and as a member of the United Nations, the G8, NATO and the European Union.

My answer to the points raised by a number of right hon. and hon. Members is that it is because we recognise the range of responsibilities that we are working to build a humanitarian coalition to deal with the growing crisis faced by Afghan refugees, and to offer those innocent and helpless people—victims themselves, with whom we have no quarrel—the assistance that they need. The United Kingdom was the first country to pledge money for refugees. The sum now stands at some £36 million, in addition to the £35 million that we have given to Afghan refugees since 1997.

Mr. Dalyell: Will the humanitarian aid be provided before the winter snows come, and the passes become impassable?

Mr. Hoon: It is already being provided. The Department for International Development's first shipment of 400 tents arrived in Iran yesterday. A further flight with more supplies is due to depart for Iran at the end of this week. We do recognise the effects of the onset of winter, and the difficult conditions in Afghanistan, but much determined effort is being made throughout the world to ensure that aid reaches the country quickly. There is, of course, a great deal more that we need to do,

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and I assure my hon. Friend that we are thinking urgently about what further help we and the rest of the world can give. I know that many right hon. and hon. Members were concerned about that, especially my hon. Friend the Member for City of York (Hugh Bayley), and I hope that I have been able to satisfy them that we are making determined efforts.

In addition to the building of a humanitarian coalition, a range of further measures are being taken by the international community. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has been in regular contact with President Bush. I have been in close contact with Donald Rumsfeld, the United States Defence Secretary. This close contact has been matched at all levels within the Ministry of Defence, and right across Government. We have consulted carefully on the appropriate response to the attacks on 11 September, and have made it clear to our United States ally that we will offer it every assistance in whatever action it takes.

As the Prime Minister announced this morning, we have received an initial request from the United States for a range of military capabilities. We have already responded positively to that, and we shall consider further requests as and when they are received.

Mr. Gerald Howarth: The Secretary of State has said that Britain is prepared to respond positively. Will he say what impact that will have on the heavy commitments in which our armed forces are already engaged in various parts of the world, not least in the Balkans?

Mr. Hoon: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, which he has raised with me before. Clearly it is my responsibility, on behalf of the Government, to ensure that our armed forces are not asked to do more than they can reasonably sustain, and we shall have careful regard to that consideration in the weeks and months ahead.

Ms Oona King: On the point of funding the military, and in the wake of the attacks of 11 September, does my right hon. Friend share my hope that both the left and right will learn some lessons? Should not the left accept that we need to prioritise military spending so that peacekeeping roles, among others, can be fulfilled and the right accept that we must prioritise humanitarian aid and that it must be paid for?

Mr. Hoon: The lesson of events in the Balkans and elsewhere—indeed, this is one of the lessons of the modern world—is that we need to recognise that humanitarian crises go hand in hand with military ones and that there must be a co-ordinated response across government. I think that that point was made from the Opposition Benches. It is important for us to join together those responses, as this Government in particular have done.

Harry Cohen (Leyton and Wanstead): If military action is taken, when does my right hon. Friend expect to be in a position to announce the rules of engagement and the war aims? If those aims do not include removing the Taliban, on what basis will they be engaged?

Mr. Hoon: I had thought that my hon. Friend might have noticed that I dealt with that point earlier. The purpose of any military action would be to create a

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condition in Afghanistan whereby it had a Government who did not support international terrorism, took appropriate steps to remove terrorists from within its borders and ensured that no further help was given to terrorism.

I was dealing with contacts between allies. I want to make it clear that there have been a range of such contacts, not only with the United States, but with other allies. NATO defence Ministers met in Brussels last week to discuss how we can work together in our response to the threat of international terrorism. NATO has taken the unprecedented step of invoking article 5 for the first time in its history, in recognition that the attack on the United States was an attack on all of us. Other allies, therefore, also stand by to assist the United States.

The discussions in Brussels included a meeting with the new Russian Defence Minister—the first civilian to be made a Defence Minister in that country. The response to the attacks on the United States has been remarkable for the degree of unity shown by nations across the world. The Russian support for the United States has been invaluable. The Prime Minister's visit to Russia today is a sign of that developing closeness, on which I hope to build when I visit Russia for talks with its new Defence Minister next week.

The United Kingdom's armed forces have continued to serve our country with very great distinction. They have consistently excelled recently in a number of difficult situations in the Balkans, East Timor and Africa. Only last month, I went to see Britain's contribution to Task Force Harvest in Macedonia. Their professionalism, skill and determination to play their part in restoring stability to that country were all that we have come to expect. I have no doubt that, if and when they are called on to play their part in the action against Osama bin Laden and his associates, against the Taliban, and against others who support terrorism, they will do so with the same distinction.

Many of our service personnel have already deployed to Oman to take part in Exercise Saif Sareea with the Omani armed forces. Planning for the exercise began some four years ago. It has been designed to test and prove the success of key elements of our joint rapid reaction forces. It also demonstrates the closeness of our friendship with Oman and will develop our wide-ranging defence relationship.

Before this debate, the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) raised with me the issue of the welfare package. I was grateful to him for relating to me the experiences that he gained when visiting the exercise in Oman. We were aware of certain difficulties with the welfare package. Efforts are being made to put that right. I am grateful for the thoughtful way in which he raised the matter and the balanced manner in which he dealt with it today.

The United Kingdom's contribution to the exercise is immense. It is the largest overseas deployment by British forces since the Gulf conflict. As the House will have heard, some 20,000 service personnel are taking part. We have deployed the Illustrious Carrier Group, 3 Commando Brigade, five squadrons of Challenger 2 tanks, some 50 fast jet aircraft and many other force elements. I must emphasise to the House that they are there to take part in

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the exercise. Obviously, however, in the light of the attacks on the United States and given that we know where they originated, it is a fortunate coincidence that our forces can by their presence contribute to the trap that we are closing around Osama bin Laden. We are prepared and ready to draw on those deployed forces if that is required, but, as a number of Members have said, the war on international terrorism will not be won by military force alone. It must be fought on other fronts too—through diplomacy, new legislation and new economic measures. That point was made by a number of right hon. and hon. Members, including, in particular, my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Mr. Smith).

The enemy that we face is sophisticated. It has close links with transnational organised crime, illegal arms trafficking, the movement of illicit drugs, and money laundering. It threatens us in many ways. Our response must be sophisticated too, and organised on a national, regional and international basis. That was pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy). I emphasise that we have already made our first moves. We have acted to increase the security of the United Kingdom in the face of these threats.

As my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary made clear, we have no evidence of any specific threat of terrorist action against the United Kingdom. It is, perhaps, one thing to describe a doomsday scenario in a Sunday newspaper; it is quite another to deploy a functioning, effective weapon of mass destruction. Of course, that does not mean that we should not be vigilant—as we all must be.

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