MPs deeply divided over air strikes

Click to follow
The Independent Online
DEEP DIVISIONS, spreading across the political parties, opened up in the Commons last night over Nato air strikes against Yugoslavia.

At the close of an emergency debate on the Kosovo crisis, Labour left- wingers were thwarted from forcing a technical vote on the adjournment of the House in protest at the Government's actions.

The scale of the divide was illustrated when the veteran Labour left- winger Tony Benn (Chesterfield) spoke out bitterly against the air assault, while another leading member of the left, Ken Livingstone, backed the action. While Mr Benn denounced Nato's strikes as a "war of aggression" and mocked Government claims that it was being done for "humanitarian purposes", Mr Livingstone (Brent East) compared the Serb President, Slobodan Milosevic, to Adolf Hitler.

"The only scandal that still rests on the Western governments is that we have not indicted Milosevic for war crimes," he said.

Some Tories were also unhappy. The former defence minister Alan Clark said much of the Foreign Secretary's reasoning in justifying the air strikes had been "faulty". Mr Clark (Kensington and Chelsea) told MPs: "Many British servicemen regard the KLA as a bunch of thugs deeply involved in the drug trade who are also operating various refugee operations into this country."

He complained that there had been a consistent anti-Serb propaganda campaign operating throughout what was essentially a civil war.

With just two minutes to go in the debate, Mr Benn tried to force a vote on the adjournment of the House, but it was voted down decisively, and the Defence Secretary, George Robertson, continued with his wind-up speech. The debate ran out at the allotted time of 7pm, with those opposed to the action denied a chance to register their protests formally through a division.

Mr Benn warned there was a grave danger of the conflict spreading, adding: "We are witnessing a war to control the Balkans." He said: "I am bitterly opposed to Milosevic because faced with a political problem he used force - which is exactly the same reason that I am against the Government's action."

Mr Benn said he was voting against the Government with a "heavy heart" but it was impossible to vote for a war that was "against the charter of the UN" and essential to stand true to Labour's values of "internationalism, peace and the peaceful settlement of disputes".

Mr Robertson said it was too soon to give any results of the UK attacks on Yugoslavia. But Nato officials had confirmed the air strikes were successful.

Britain's relations with Russia were "an issue of some concern", he said. But the Prime Minister had had "a perfectly friendly" telephone conversation with the Russian Prime Minister, Yevgeny Primakov, about the Kosovo crisis that afternoon.

The military objectives were clear: to avert a humanitarian catastrophe by disrupting the violent attacks on the Kosovo Albanians. "We have not set ourselves the task of defeating the Yugoslav army. We are engaged in an effort to reduce Milosevic's repressive capability. We believe we will achieve that."

Mr Robertson said what happened next was "essentially up to Milosevic himself". He could sign up to the Rambouillet agreement and stop the violence in Kosovo.

The Defence Secretary stressed again that the allies had no intention of sending ground forces into Kosovo.

Acknowledging that there were worries and anxieties, Mr Robertson questioned what the alternatives were. "We have tried diplomacy to exhaustion over the last year ... The killing goes on. They were doing it yesterday. They would have been doing it today if the attacks had not taken place."

He added: "We could try appeasement." But the lessons of history was that "aggressive bullies must be stopped".

Opening the sombre six-hour debate, the Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, said air strikes against Yugoslavia would continue until Nato had achieved its military objectives. Laying the blame for the attacks squarely on the shoulders of Mr Milosevic, Mr Cook said it was in the Serb President's hands to put a stop to them.

"President Milosevic can halt it at any time by signalling that he is willing to pull back his troops, honour the ceasefire he signed in October and accept in principle the Rambouillet peace plan," he said.

Mr Cook said the allied forces had been left with "no other way of preventing the present humanitarian crisis from becoming a catastrophe" than by moving to limit Mr Milosevic's ability to repress the Kosovar Albanians. "Not to have acted, when we knew the atrocities that were being committed, would have been to make ourselves complicit in their repression."

The shadow Foreign Secretary, Michael Howard, said: "In the absence of an acceptance by Mr Milosevic that the repressive action by the Serbs against the Kosovo Albanians must immediately come to an end, the Opposition support the Government in the action which it has taken."

Mr Howard said the air strikes met "the requirements of a just war" but warned of "anxieties, concerns and doubts in all parts of the House".

For the Liberal Democrats, Menzies Campbell expressed his party's support. "In the comfort of the television studio or the safety of the House of Commons it is all too easy to under-estimate the unmitigated horror of modern warfare. But it is just as easy to underestimate the suffering of the people of Kosovo shelled out of their homes," he said.

Meanwhile in the Lords debate on Kosovo, the former Nato secretary- general Lord Carrington, who resigned as Foreign Secretary from the Thatcher government over the Falklands invasion, condemned the policy that led to air strikes against Serbia. Lord Carrington, who headed the Nato alliance from 1984-88, told peers: "I think that the policy which has led to us being where we are now is both mistaken and ill-conceived. I have the gravest misgivings on the course on which we are set." But he conceded that, after the numerous threats, Nato would have been "a derided organisation" if it had not carried them out.

Lord Carrington went on: "I don't know where it's going to end. I don't know how it will end. And I don't know what the Government will do if the bombing doesn't achieve their aim."

Lord Gilbert, the Defence minister, opening the emergency debate in the Lords, said: "We have in Nato a formidable array of military capability at our disposal to achieve the objectives we have set ourselves."