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3.40 p.m.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Chalker of Wallasey): My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement on Bosnia which is being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary. The Statement is as follows:

"The situation on the ground deteriorated over the last month. Around the Bihac pocket, Bosnian Government forces launched an attack but were then forced back by the Bosnian Serbs. The Bosnian Serbs, with support from Croatian Serb forces and rebel Bosnian Moslems, have taken the fighting into the United Nations safe area. The contravention of Security Council resolutions led the commanders of the UN force and NATO to call for and carry out air strikes to deter attacks against the safe area.

"The fighting has also intensified in central Bosnia with Bosnian Government forces making gains against the Bosnian Serbs. In the safe areas of Sarajevo, Gorazde and Srebrenica the civilian populations and the UN contingents are short of supplies as convoys have been held up. Over 400 UN troops had their movements limited by the Bosnian Serbs. Some were effectively held hostage.

"That was the situation which faced the ministerial meeting of the Contact Group on 2nd December. The Contact Group countries—Britain, France, Germany, Russia and the United States—united in calling for an immediate ceasefire in the Bihac pocket, including the withdrawal of Bosnian Serb and Croatian Serb forces from the safe area. We also called for talks to begin on a comprehensive agreement to cease hostilities throughout Bosnia. The Contact Group supported UNPROFOR's mission and demanded immediate freedom of movement for UNPROFOR and for humanitarian supplies throughout the country. Only once these steps have been taken and the Bosnian Serbs have accepted the Contact Group plan as the basis for a settlement can negotiations continue.

"The Contact Group reaffirmed the plan adopted last July. Under this plan the integrity of Bosnia-Hercegovina would be preserved. The Bosnian Serbs would hold 49 per cent. of the territory, the Bosnian Federation of Croats and Moslems 51 per cent. We reiterated that the territorial proposal—that is, the map of the 51 per cent. and 49 per cent.—can be adjusted by mutual agreement between the parties. Constitutional arrangements agreeable to the parties will also need to be drawn up which preserve the integrity of Bosnia-Hercegovina and allow equitable and balanced arrangements for the Bosnian-Croat Federation and the Bosnian-Serb entity. The Contact Group agreed that its officials would help the parties reach a settlement on these issues. We did not discuss the lifting of the arms embargo or any change in the arrangements for the use of NATO airpower in support of the UN.

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"The purpose of the Contact Group meeting was to help relaunch the political process following agreement, which we hope will come soon, on a ceasefire.

"To carry this forward, I travelled to Belgrade with my French colleague, M. Juppé, for talks with President Milosevic. Mr. Milosevic welcomed the clarifications we were able to provide. He said that they would help him to put again to the Bosnian Serb Assembly the case for accepting the peace plan. The next day over 20 members—more than a quarter of the Bosnian Serb Assembly—saw Mr. Milosevic in Belgrade. They issued a statement saying that in the light of the clarifications made to the Contact Group plan, the Pale Assembly should consider accepting it and entering negotiations on the map and the constitution to reach a final settlement. This is an encouraging step forward, but not enough. The Bosnian Serb leadership has yet to accept the plan.

"At the summit of the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe, which my right honourable friend the Prime Minister and I attended in Budapest on 5th and 6th December, I met President Izetbegovic of Bosnia, President Tudjman of Croatia and the Secretaries-General of the United Nations and NATO.

"The three presidents—Milosevic, Izetbegovic and Tudjman —all support the Contact Group plan for Bosnia and the continued presence of the UN force. They are all willing in principle to agree to a ceasefire throughout Bosnia, as are the Bosnian Serbs, though there remains a disagreement over its duration. We hope that the UN special representative, Mr. Akashi, will be able to make progress on a ceasefire this week.

"The British Government want the UN force to be able to continue its mission and the British contingent to continue to play a major part. But we must be clear about its role. It is not there to impose solutions on unwilling parties. It cannot fight on one side. It does not defend one army's territory against the attacks of another. It is there to support the impressive aid effort, much of it British, delivered by ODA teams, to buttress ceasefires where they exist and, within its limitations, to underpin the safe areas and exclusion zones designated by the United Nations and NATO.

"Withdrawal would be a difficult operation in itself. The consequences for the civilians whom the force are there to protect would be severe. But UNPROFOR can only continue its mission if it can do so without unacceptable risk and if it can continue to fulfil its mandate. As with all military operations, planning is in hand to cover a variety of eventualities, including withdrawal. These are constantly updated. The Government are not considering unilateral withdrawal of the British contingent. We are working with our partners in NATO and the United Nations.

"The Government's preferred way forward is clear: first, a ceasefire in the Bihac safe area and throughout Bosnia; secondly, agreement on the free movement of UNPROFOR and for aid convoys; thirdly, resumption of urgent negotiations for a peace settlement on the basis of the Contact Group plan; and, fourthly, once

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agreement has been reached, withdrawal by the Bosnian Serbs from the land they hold to the new lines agreed.

"Before I end, I should also record welcome progress between the Croatian Government and the Croatian Serbs. Last week they signed an economic agreement which provides for the resumption of oil, water and electricity links between the Serb held areas of Croatia and the rest of the country and for re-opening the highway between Zagreb and Belgrade. I pay tribute to the months of patient and persistent diplomacy by the noble Lord, Lord Owen, and Mr. Stoltenberg which was needed to achieve this. I hope the agreement can be implemented soon. It improves the prospects for negotiations leading to a lasting political settlement in Croatia and for normalisation of ties between Croatia and Serbia."

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for repeating the Statement. I welcome the progress that has been made in negotiating at least a modicum of agreement between the Croatian Government and the Croatian Serbs. I share with the Minister our gratitude to the noble Lord, Lord Owen, and Mr. Stoltenberg for their work in achieving that. I also welcome the decision to maintain British troops as part of the UN forces in Bosnia. While lives continue to be saved and while humanitarian aid is provided as a direct result of the presence of UN troops in Bosnia, we on this side of the House hope that members of the British Armed Forces will continue to be part of that presence.

There has been in the press a great deal of loose talk about the withdrawal of our troops without sufficient consideration of the effects on the Bosnian civilian community. Many more lives would be at risk if UN troops, among whom British troops play such a crucial part, were to be withdrawn. We also accept, as the Statement makes absolutely clear, that the role of British troops is not to fight on one side or the other or to defend one army's territory against another. We agree that, provided that their future safety is not seriously threatened, they are there to monitor the cease-fire and to ensure that UN resolutions on the exclusion areas and the safe havens are implemented. However, what has happened in Bihac during the past couple of weeks has shown only too clearly that, as we predicted, the safe haven policy has not worked and it is still not working.

Will the Minister tell the House how the United Nations and NATO intend to ensure that what happened in Bihac during the past two or three weeks is not repeated elsewhere in the near future? Will she also tell the House what steps will be taken to stop other Bosnian Serbs taking more UN troops hostage? Surely it is totally unacceptable that Bosnian Serbs, with the support of rebel Bosnian Moslems and Croatian Serbs, should have mounted an attack on one of the designated safe havens. That attack had considerable success and led to 400 United Nations troops being denied basic supplies and the ability to move freely.

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It is not clear what political steps are being taken to deal with that in the ongoing negotiations with the Bosnian Serbs. Does the Minister agree that in such circumstances it is entirely wrong to make concessions to the Bosnian Serbs? In offering an association between the Bosnian Serbs and the state of Serbia, is not the international community making just such a concession? Moreover, will not this concession jeopardise the long-term independence of Bosnia and the future of the Bosnian Moslem community.

The Statement indicates that at the recent meeting of the Contact Group there was no discussion on the lifting of the arms embargo. Will the Minister confirm that there are to be no further changes to the current position on the arms embargo? Does she agree that to provide American, British or French arms to the Bosnian Moslems at this delicate stage will serve only to inflame the military situation and to damage progress towards a political settlement?

The Statement strikes a note of optimism about the Contact Group's planned basis for a settlement which is difficult to share. The Minister has given no assessment of the chances of the Bosnian Serb leadership accepting it after the Minister's right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary and the French Minister for Foreign Affairs visited Belgrade. Perhaps she is now able to give such an assessment.

I wish to pay tribute again to the brave and courageous role played by our troops in Bosnia. As I said earlier, they have saved many lives. We hope that the international community will be more successful in obtaining the political settlement which will allow the troops to return home safely as soon as possible.

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