§ 2. Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome)
What is the current deployment of British armed forces personnel in south-east Europe. 
§ The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. George Robertson)
There are currently some 5,675 British armed forces personnel deployed in Bosnia, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia and Greece. That number excludes defence attaché staff.
3 The House will wish to be aware that the Government decided on Friday to authorise the deployment of some 2,225 personnel to Greece and Macedonia as the advance element of the UK's contribution to any NATO-led peace implementation force in Kosovo. These are the personnel of the lead armoured battle group and 4 Armoured Brigade headquarters, whose heavy equipment and vehicles were deployed following the announcement that I made to the House on 11 February. This further advance deployment of equipment and personnel represents prudent military planning to ensure that the UK can continue to play its part in bringing about a peaceful settlement in Kosovo.
I hope that the peace talks jointly chaired by my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will lead to a successful outcome, including the need for a NATO-led military force to underpin the agreement. However, we cannot be certain that that will happen. If agreement is not reached, the UK will be prepared to act with our allies to take whatever measures are necessary to avoid a humanitarian catastrophe.
§ Mr. Heath
I share the Secretary of State's view, and we all hope for a successful outcome from Rambouillet. Does he agree that, if President Milosevic accepts the political, but not the military, outcome of those talks, bombing alone will not secure peace in Kosovo? Has he had any discussions with his counterparts in Russia on the concept of including within the NATO-led peace implementation force a component from Russia, particularly given the skilful and distinguished role that those troops played in Bosnia?
§ Mr. Robertson
The only thing that will guarantee peace in Kosovo for the future is a political agreement to which both sides subscribe. That is what my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has been working towards with his colleagues at Rambouillet during the past two weeks. My right hon. Friend deserves the commendation of the House for the effort and energy that he has put into the talks. The talks are continuing, and it is not for me to predict how they will go up to the deadline that was fixed for tomorrow afternoon. We would like to avoid all violence, and the troops deployed to Greece and Macedonia are there as a precaution—a prudent military contingency for what we hope will be an implementation force designed to supervise a peace agreement, if that happens.
On Russia, we would all like to see a Russian contingent as part of any multinational force. The Russians are part of the stabilisation force in Bosnia and part of the Contact Group involved in the negotiations, and they have been unanimously behind the position taken up in the negotiations so far.
§ Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)
Did my right hon. Friend see the moving obituary on Saturday by the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness (Sir R. Body) of the wartime Bomber Command hero, Group Captain Peter Johnson, which described how Hitler gave a fortnight's leave to any German soldier on the Russian front or in north Africa whose home had been destroyed? Is it not true that people whose families are bombed react with far more vigour and determination? What does he think the 4 effect on the Serbs will be of heavy bombing, some of which will undoubtedly hit civilian targets, however careful the bombers may be?
§ Mr. Robertson
No, I did not see the obituary, but if that hero were here today, he too would say that we must be robust in our approach to those who bully and intimidate, are responsible for disproportionate violence and take it out on civilians. We have always made it clear, up to and including the agreement reached with Ambassador Holbrooke last year, that Serbia must face the prospect of military action unless it is willing to abandon its uncivilised attacks on people in its own country. Both sides are around the table in Rambouillet. I hope, as we all must, that the sensible discussions will result in a political outcome that will avoid any further violence.
§ Mr. John Maples (Stratford-on-Avon)
There are British participants in the peace monitoring force in Kosovo; there is an increasing number of British troops in Macedonia; and there is the possibility that, within the next week or two, they may be deployed in Kosovo itself. Might bombing operations against Serbia begin while those monitors from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe are still in Kosovo, and how does the Secretary of State plan to ensure that they do not become hostages? Can he give the House a categorical assurance that there are no circumstances under which British troops going to Macedonia might be deployed in Kosovo other than as part of a peacekeeping force and pursuant to an agreement with Serbia?
§ Mr. Robertson
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would agree that it would not be prudent for me to speculate on what military action might follow if the Serbs were responsible for a breakdown in the negotiations at Rambouillet. Both sides should listen well to the messages that they are getting. The Kosovo Albanians should be aware that, if they do not engage in the serious business of the negotiations, they, too, are likely to pay a penalty. We are well aware of the role and effectiveness of the Kosovo verification mission, and its members' welfare is high on our safety agenda; but I shall say no more about that at present. Of course British troops will not be deployed in Kosovo unless there is an agreement for them to supervise.
§ Mr. Maples
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that assurance. May I take him a little further down this path? Paragraph 89 of the strategic defence review says that we can respond to a major international crisis of the nature of the Gulf war or to two crises: one on a Bosnia scale and another more limited, non-war-fighting deployment, for up to six months. Does that mean that, after any deployment into Kosovo, we will not be able to respond to a major international crisis like the Gulf war without withdrawing troops from the Balkans and that, within the force structure planned in the SDR, any Kosovo deployment could be maintained for only six months?
§ Mr. Robertson
The answer to the first part of that question is no: it does not mean that at all. The strategic defence review planning assumptions were planning tools, intended to guide the development of our long-term force structure, not to provide a template for specific 5 operational commitments. As we explained throughout the review, we may, in particular circumstances, decide to do less than the assumptions provided for, and we may be able to do more. The defence review planning was based on being able to mount two concurrent operations at full brigade level. Maintaining deployments in Bosnia and Kosovo will be very demanding, but the overall forces involved are not of the same order.
§ Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle)
May I ask my right hon. Friend about the deployment of ground troops in Kosovo? As he will be aware, my local regiment, the King's Own Royal Border Regiment, has been serving in Macedonia since December. The Christmas before that, the regiment served with distinction in Bosnia and, yesterday, there was press speculation that it was likely to spend next Christmas in Kosovo. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that is not ideal, and will he do everything possible to ensure that the regiment spends next Christmas in the United Kingdom?
§ Mr. Robertson
My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to his local regiment, and I pay tribute to it for giving up both those Christmases in the interests of international law and order. It serves in Macedonia at present as part of the extraction force, who are colloquially known in NATO as the "dentists". The circumstances are inhospitable, but the work is very necessary. If the negotiations at Rambouillet are as successful as we all hope, we will be able to consider force configuration later in the year. 1 am conscious of the obligations that our troops have taken on, and I do not lightly agree to the deployment of troops unless I have clear military advice that such deployment is necessary and that they can cope with it. I much admire and deeply respect the commitment of our armed forces, who are willing to take on commitments to stop massacres and violence such as happened towards the end of last year in Kosovo, and which would almost certainly return if the pressure were taken off.
§ Sir Peter Emery (East Devon)
May I return the right hon. Gentleman to the subject of the safety of the OSCE monitors in Kosovo? There are now more than 2,000 there, of whom 350 are British. If bombing happens, would it not be much more likely that they would be attacked by Serb forces? What are the right hon. Gentleman's thoughts in his work with the OSCE management about the safety of those men? They are unarmed and they do a magnificent job, which I am sure that the whole House would wish to support.
§ Mr. Robertson
I know that the whole House supports what they are doing and recognises the commitment and bravery involved. Major-General John Drewienkiewicz, who is in charge of the monitors, is a man of substantial quality, whose advice we take on an almost daily basis. We are conscious of the role that the monitors perform in Kosovo and the need for them to be the eyes and ears of the outside world in a situation that can change from moment to moment. I assure the right hon. Gentleman that the monitors' safety is of paramount importance and high on our agenda in any planning that we undertake.