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Bosnia: Nato Air Action

Volume 553: debated on Monday 11 April 1994

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3.8 p.m.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask a Question of which I have given the Government private notice; namely, to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will make a Statement on the recent air strike by NATO aircraft in Bosnia.

My Lords, with your Lordships' permission I shall make a Statement on the incident around Gorazde yesterday, in which NATO planes carried out close air support in defence of UNPROFOR personnel.

General Rose requested close air support (CAS) on the afternoon of 10th April after evidence of Serb attacks on and advances towards the centre of Gorazde, including a tank round into the city centre and in response to the threat to UN personnel trapped in part of Gorazde by Serb attackers closing in on the town. There are at present 12 UN military observers in Gorazde and four UNHCR personnel.

We understand that the request, backed by the force commander, was authorised speedily by the UN special representative, Yasushi Akashi. Two US F.16s under NATO command were used against a Serb artillery position at 16.22 GMT and 16.26 GMT. Serb shelling continued briefly after that and there was anti-aircraft fire against the NATO planes. According to UN reports, the city was quiet thereafter, although there were two isolated incidents during the night.

We have just received reports of further action today by NATO aircraft in close air support of UNPROFOR. No further information is available at present.

The action taken yesterday by UNPROFOR and NATO has our full support. The decision was taken in accordance with normal UN and NATO procedures at the request of General de la Presle and General Rose.

The use of air power in support of UNPROFOR in the performance of its mandate is authorised by UN Security Council Resolutions 836 and 844. The UN Secretary-General, Mr. Boutros Ghali, has also expressed his full approval for the actions taken.

UNPROFOR is neutral and not a party to the conflict, but has the right of self-defence. As General Rose pointed out, UNPROFOR is often forced to fire in self-defence. On this occasion, however, the risk to UNPROFOR personnel was thought by UNPROFOR commanders to warrant a request to NATO for air support.

Humanitarian convoys crossing Bosnian Serb areas and some aid flights into Sarajevo have been temporarily suspended. We hope that they will be able to resume shortly, and that the considerable progress made over the past few months in Bosnia will continue. We hope that the parties will be able to agree to a global cessation of hostilities in Bosnia, which UNPROFOR has been trying to negotiate, as a first step towards an overall political settlement. We hope that all parties will draw the appropriate lessons from the use of air power, and that attacks on the safe areas will now cease.

I am sure that your Lordships will welcome this prompt and appropriate action, taken by NATO in support of UN personnel, and with the full support of both organisations.

3.13 p.m.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for making this Statement this afternoon. As I am sure the House appreciates, it is an extremely important and grave event, even in the context of what has been happening in Bosnia.

The Minister said that the Government are satisfied that the action was authorised by Security Council Resolutions 836 and 844. Is that the view also of the Russian Government? Has there been any response from that Government to the attacks which took place yesterday? If so, what was that response? Also, is there any likelihood of any action being taken in the Security Council in New York at the behest of the Russian Government?

The noble Baroness told us that certain action had taken place today. Is that in the same area as the action that took place yesterday? Is it around Gorazde or in another part of Bosnia? Can the Minister tell us anything other than the fact that something seems to have happened of which the Government know little and cannot illuminate on?

What steps are being taken to protect UNPROFOR forces and particularly the British troops serving in UNPROFOR against the possibility of retaliation? Are the Government aware that there is almost a sense of inevitability about the whole affair? If it is true—I shall be grateful if the Minister can confirm this—that the air strikes became necessary because Serb forces on Friday seized some high ground overlooking the town in direct violation of the 24-hour cease-fire that they had agreed with General Rose only the day before, and that shelling into the town thereafter was endangering not only the small number of UN forces in the town but also civilian personnel, then it is difficult to avoid any conclusion other than that the Serbs were the authors of their own misfortune and brought the action on themselves.

Finally, can the noble Baroness say where we go from here? The threat of force is now no longer a threat; it is a reality. In what circumstances will force be used in the future? Is the primary objective of the use of force to protect UNPROFOR personnel or is it to protect the safe havens? It may be that the two objectives are identical in practice. However, I shall be grateful if the noble Baroness can tell us how the Government see the use of force, force now having been used.

My Lords, I understand that in a PNQ I first respond to the noble Lord who raised the Question. We have heard that President Yeltsin stated his concern that Russia was not consulted before yesterday's incident. The authority for close air support was delegated by the United Nations Secretary-General to his special representative and by NATO to relevant military commanders. The UK Government were not consulted; we did not expect to be consulted and were not aware that any other NATO ally was being consulted. There was therefore no reason why the Russians should be consulted. We are keeping in close touch with the Russian Government and discussions are proceeding today in the United Nations Security Council.

With regard to the noble Lord's second question, the action seems to have been in the same area as Gorazde. However, we received the information just before your Lordships' House sat and there was no further detail available to me to give to your Lordships.

In relation to the protection of UNPROFOR against retaliation, that is exactly what Resolution 836 authorises. If there is retaliation, we may need to retaliate with close air support in the future. But I believe that the command on the ground is designed to give protection to the UNPROFOR troops while enabling them to carry out the jobs that they went there to perform.

The noble Lord, Lord Richard, is correct to say that the Serbs brought the action upon themselves. Not only was there a cease-fire which the Serbs then broke, but also General Rose gave three warnings to the Serb commanders when they were shelling Gorazde before any action was even contemplated by UNPROFOR. It is difficult to say where we go next. We shall certainly be extremely careful in using close air support and use it only when fully justified, as it undoubtedly was on this occasion.

My Lords, I too thank the noble Baroness for the Answer that she gave to this important Question raised by the noble Lord, Lord Richard. Though I recognise that there is probably no formal reason why the Russian Government should be consulted, given the importance of the part that they played and of this whole issue in their domestic politics, it may have been wise so to have done. I feel that it is extremely important in this matter that we do everything in our power to keep the Russians in step, though I agree that we cannot allow Russian domestic politics to block the peace process or allow the Bosnian Serbs to ravage Gorazde as a safe haven.

I should like to ask the noble Baroness one further question. On 10th March in this House her noble friend Lord Cranborne announced the level of reinforcements which were to be provided to General Rose at his request. Some 3,850 additional troops were to be deployed; 2,450 were to be redeployed from within and 900 British troops from the 1st Duke of Wellington's Regiment. Can the noble Baroness say how many of those troops are there today?

At the same time we were told that 4,000 further troops would be deployed by the summer. Can the Minister say what date "the summer" begins and whether those 4,000 troops will be forthcoming? In the present circumstances General Rose requires troops to perform his very difficult task.

My Lords, having given, in the Security Council, the authority for close air support—delegated by the UN Secretary-General to the special representative and the military commanders—no nation should seek to second guess the situation. It is clear what may happen should any nation be allowed to do so.

The reinforcements announced by my noble friend on 10th March have been carried out. Troops composed mainly of the 1st Duke of Wellington's Regiment plus Engineers, Signals and support staff were fully deployed in theatre by 24th March. There are also 30 more military observers from Britain bringing the UK total of military observers to 80. It is true that 4,000 more troops, probably coming from Pakistan and Bangladesh, are expected by the summer. However, I cannot tell the noble Lord when summer begins any more than the meteorologists can tell us.

3.20 p.m.

My Lords, is it then the view of the Government that air-to-ground action by NATO aircraft is sufficient to deter the Serbs?

My Lords, I sincerely hope that the Serb authorities will see that NATO and the UN mean business. I believe that has been shown in the action by the close air support team to protect the UNPROFOR troops. We hope that action will not continue to be needed; but should it be, the decision has been taken. This chance for peace was going so well until a few days ago when it was quite clearly broken by the Serb advance on Gorazde. That advance has to be stopped.

My Lords, without in any way impugning the justification for the action taken, justification which my noble friend has provided most convincingly, I should like to ask this question. Has she any information regarding the physical efficaciousness and effects of yesterday's strike? Did it go home; and what did it do when it got there?

My Lords, I cannot give my noble and learned friend the exact detail that he would like to have. However, from general reporting I have heard on the radio it seems that the strike went home and stopped a communications centre. Beyond that I cannot give information at the present time.

My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that those of us who are fearful of this country getting involved on one side of a civil war are even more fearful today? Secondly, will she comment on reports which have come out that one of the UNPROFOR observers was a member of the SAS who directed fire on the Serb positions? Thirdly, is there still contact with the Serb political leaders or commanders in an effort to stop this incident—I call it an incident advisedly—from escalating further?

My Lords, I can tell the noble Lord that there is still contact with the Serbs. It is not at all levels and in all places, but we shall be doing all we can to maintain the contact with the Serbs for the simple reason that what we believe is necessary is to gain a cease-fire. As the noble Lord, Lord Richard, said, that was what seemed to have been agreed on Thursday but was totally broken by the Serbs on Friday. The noble Lord asked about the role of the Special Air Services. He will know that it is long-standing policy not to comment on special forces matters. Beyond that I can make no further comment today.

My Lords, I believe we can be confident that General Rose was following very closely rules of engagement which will have been issued to him by the United Nations authorities. Can the Minister confirm that that is the case? Can she also confirm whether those rules of engagement were drawn up in consultation with Her Majesty's Government and other members of the Security Council?

My Lords, I can fairly assure the noble and gallant Lord that we are absolutely confident that the action taken by General Rose is in line with the rules of engagement. I believe that they were agreed between NATO partners, as NATO is the authorised body to carry out the action, rather than by the UN.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that it is very important still to keep in contact with the Russians, bearing in mind that they were highly influential at the time of the withdrawal of the Serb guns from Sarajevo? It is all very well trying to bomb Serbs but they do not like being bullied any more than the British would.

My Lords, I do not believe there is any nation in the world that wishes to be bullied. We have placed a very high value on the constructive role that Russia has played in the peace process. We hope that that will continue and discussion is working to that end. I have a good deal of sympathy with what my noble friend says but there was no way that the advance by the Serbs on Gorazde at a time when there was supposed to be a cease-fire could be ignored—no way at all, my Lords.

My Lords, this was by any measurement a very small military event. Is it the Government's opinion that the relevant UN resolution or declaration has no limits on it as to the amount of military intervention it could authorise without further consultation with governments supplying troops to the UN forces? Could it, for instance, unleash huge waves of strategic bombing without any reference to London, Moscow, Paris or anywhere else?

My Lords, the noble Lord asks about an operational matter. We have always followed the belief that the response should be relevant to the matter with which it is dealing. However, as an operational matter, I cannot say any more. I am quite sure that General Rose will be extremely wise in this matter.

My Lords, is it not highly satisfactory that a UN resolution has been seen to be enforced and that a safe area now means exactly what it says?

My Lords, I have great sympathy, as the noble Lord knows, in wishing to see safe areas but it is fair to say that safe areas can be safe only when there is a cease fire. At the present time the cease-fires we have worked for in many places are holding. Those safe areas will be safe when there are cease-fires and then, perhaps, the UN operation will be seen to be even more successful than it was in stopping action yesterday.

My Lords, my noble friend Lord Onslow has been very patient.

My Lords, third time lucky. What happens if the Serbs are not deterred?

My Lords, I must say to my noble friend that the Serbs have been deterred. They were certainly deterred so far as Sarajevo was concerned. The Serbs responded to the main attacks on Gorazde yesterday by trying to say that it was local commanders out of control. Whether those local commanders are still out of control or in the control of higher powers is not yet fully clear. There is a need to try to get the Serbs round the table. That is exactly what General de la Presle and General Rose are ready to do. They have said that they will meet the Bosnian Serbs at any time. We hope that the contingency plans that are in operation will help to bring this to a cease-fire very soon.

My Lords, further to the questions that have been asked about Russia, can the noble Baroness explain in more detail what she meant by avoiding giving the governments concerned an opportunity to second guess the decisions on the ground? Does it mean that she sees advantage in the Russians not having an opportunity to do at Gorazde what they did so successfully over Sarajevo?

My Lords, the most important thing is that we have committed ourselves to seeking to try to stop a conflict and to take certain action; and the power has been delegated by the UN to its special representative and by NATO to the relevant military commanders. They are the people on the ground. We as a government would not expect, and did not expect, to be consulted and I am not aware that any other NATO ally did either. I therefore do not see why any government should be consulted in the way that the noble Lord suggests.

My Lords, will the noble Baroness admit that there is a distinction between protecting. UNPROFOR personnel, which is perfectly proper and is covered by United Nations resolutions, and what is called stopping the Serbs, if I may use that shorthand expression, from invading Gorazde or anywhere else? Is it not the case that the F1-16s were on patrol and that within 25 minutes they were guided in to drop 500 pound bombs on targets with, as I understand it from public communiqués, great effect? I hope that the noble Baroness will confirm that this was not an action to stop Serbs attacking Goradze although it had that effect? Is there not a distinction and would the noble Baroness like to make that distinction absolutely clear to your Lordships?

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Williams. He is absolutely right. Security Council Resolution 836 gives the authority to stop attacks against UNPROFOR. It is not stopping the Serbs because the only people who can stop them are the Serbs themselves. Therefore, there were UNPROFOR troops on the ground. The advance on Goradze was serious and it is correct for us to take action in defence of UNPROFOR.

My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree that the idea that this action was taken in defence of UNPROFOR forces is a very convenient fiction? Does the noble Baroness agree that it was taken for quite clear reasons which may be ones with which we agree or disagree? I ask the noble Baroness if she agrees that this action had a much broader and deeper political motivation than the protection of the very small number of UNPROFOR forces who are in that region? Perhaps I may ask another question which follows from that. Does the noble Baroness agree that we are in danger of being sucked into a situation in which the United Nations is becoming all too ready to take action in situations of this kind and which leads to such bombing and other military action of a drastic kind? Are Her Majesty's Government not worried to some extent that we are embarked on some kind of open road which may lead—especially in the context of our own defence policy—to some very undesirable conclusions?

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, asks a very much wider question than that posed by the Private Notice Question. I say this to him: General Rose requested close air support to protect the UN personnel in Goradze. They may have been few in number, but they were there to help the people of Goradze. If the people one sends in to help the local people are being attacked, then close air support is obviously looking after those who have gone in to try to help those in the safe haven.

My Lords, while not in any way denying or belittling the possible political consequences of this action, is not the evidence so far that this was a purely operational and tactical matter? Therefore, should it not be possible for all the parties to the dispute to resume negotiations for a peaceful settlement despite what has happened?

My Lords, my noble and learned friend is absolutely right. The most important thing of all is to get back to the peace process and discussions. But there is no way in which your Lordships' House, another place or the people in the country would have understood, when UNPROFOR troops were being attacked in Goradze, though small in number, if action which had been fully authorised by the Security Council had not been taken. But, above all, we want to get back to the peace process. That is why we are in close contact not only with the Russians but also with the United States and all other interested parties to work out how best to achieve this. A negotiated settlement is what must come because that is the only way that the people of Bosnia will have peace.