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Volume 264: debated on Tuesday 24 October 1995

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To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on the latest military situation in Bosnia. [36561]

The situation is generally much quieter following the ceasefire which came into effect on 12 October. [HON. MEMBERS: "Thanks to the Americans."] Sarajevo, for example, is a changed city with trams running, convoys arriving unhindered and prices falling.

In the new military situation, what guarantees can the Secretary of State give that British troops will still be available for protection and escort duties for British humanitarian and aid missions?

For as long as the United Nations mission continues, British troops will continue to play their part. I should say that I am aware of a situation which has arisen in central Bosnia where mujaheddin appear to be operating with some sort of vendetta against British troops and, for the time being, the United Nations has withdrawn British troops from certain convoy escort duties in central Bosnia. That is on the recommendation of the United Nations for their own protection. But the general position remains that British troops will play their full part in United Nations operations.

Did not the firm, decisive and well co-ordinated action that took place during the recess, in which British troops played a conspicuous and distinguished part, prove that decisive action does in fact pay?

Yes, I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. I was bemused a moment ago to hear Opposition Members calling out that the improvement over the summer had been due to American troop operations, as though British troops had played no part. It is typical of the anti-patriotic ranting that we get from some Opposition Members.

The fact of the matter is that, as the House knows, British forces firing their artillery on Mount Igman played an extremely distinguished part, as did pilots from the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy, who committed themselves to missions with absolute courage and commendable success. Opposition Members would do well to recognise that.

Does the Secretary of State accept that, if NATO was to be unable to put the full force into the field to support the fragile peace, it would be damaging for the prospects for peace, and also to the credibility of NATO? Is the right hon. Gentleman apprehensive about the extent to which the United States is willing to put troops into a NATO force in order to assist the peace process in the former Yugoslavia?

No, I am not apprehensive about that. I agree with what the hon. and learned Gentleman says about the importance of NATO deploying a full and effective force, but I am confident that the United States will wish to play its part in that. I can also assure the House that the United Kingdom will wish to play its full part as well.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the current situation in Bosnia was brought about largely because we deployed the right equipment and the right people at the right time? In particular, the top-cover flying of the Royal Air Force with the Tornado F3—especially at night—could not have been done by other aircraft crews available from NATO. The same applies to the important job of delivering the necessary laser bombs, performed by Harriers and Jaguars, and the enormous task undertaken by transport and other aircraft, including helicopters. All that meant that we were doing the right thing at the right time.

This has been an enormously distinguished period in the history of all three services; but the history of distinguished service in Bosnia goes back further than just the past few weeks. What we have done, patiently, in feeding the hungry and saving human lives has been commendable, but when our forces were called on to adopt a more robust posture, they did not fail.

Is the Secretary of State yet in a position to advise the House on the command structure for the 50,000 to 60,000 troops that, according to NATO, will need to be deployed in Bosnia following a truce and peace accord? Will British troops serve under the United Nations or NATO, and is the right hon. Gentleman satisfied that the agreement outlined yesterday in Washington will safeguard those troops?

I believe that the operation must be undertaken by NATO, operating within the bounds of a United Nations Security Council resolution. I believe that NATO is the appropriate body. As has been proved recently, it is able to operate effectively in military terms. I also agree with the American position, which is that the command and control arrangements for NATO need to be absolutely straightforward and unambiguous.

That having been said, however, I should like nations outside NATO to participate. I am thinking of Russia, and of Muslim countries. I hope that we can find a way of including those countries in the operation without in any way confusing the command and control aspect.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that recent events in Bosnia show how successful air power can be if it is properly deployed? Will he contrast NATO's effectiveness in the past few months with the dithering of the UN over the past two years? Will he ensure that, in future, British interests in Europe are pursued through NATO rather than the United Nations?

I certainly agree that NATO has been very effective, but I do not join my hon. Friend in his attack on the UN. I think that the UN found itself in a difficult position. Many of the problems that it faced were not its fault, but were caused by the inadequate support and resources voted to it by member states. I do, however, join my hon. Friend in again paying tribute to the way in which our troops have performed in the NATO operation.