PARLIAMENT: BALKAN WAR: Left-wingers force vote on air strikes

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THE GOVERNMENT faced its first backbench rebellion over Nato's military strikes on Yugoslavia last night as left-wingers succeeded in forcing a vote on the action.

Labour MPs voted 11 to none, with both the Government and opposition parties abstaining, for a technical motion ending the full-day debate on the conflict in Kosovo.

To shouts of "you are a disgrace to the Labour Party" by Clare Short, Secretary of State for International Development, the MPs managed to call a division - after failing to do so during debates on the Iraq crisis and on the military strikes before Easter.

Earlier, Tony Benn, the MP for Chesterfield and a leading opponent of the action, argued that the Government's failure to seek Parliament's endorsement reduced MPs to the position "of a sort of press conference where we listen to ministers but have no opportunity to register our views or votes".

Opening the debate, Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary. told MPs the international community would have to accept "a more direct responsibility" in Kosovo once the Serb troops have been forced out than previously envisaged and the administration of Kosovo would have to be placed in the hands of bodies such as the United Nations and the European Union.

The task of reconstruction both of the shattered villages and of a democratic society within Kosovo would take the combined efforts of an international protectorate. "It would be our preference that a mandate should be provided by a UN Security Council resolution setting up an international administration for Kosovo," he said. However, Foreign Office sources said the plans still needed to be discussed with the other Nato member states.

Mr Cook said he would today hand over a dossier of material "on multiple atrocities" and "ethnic cleansing" from the last three weeks to the Chief Prosecutor of the International War Crimes Tribunal.

Kenneth Clarke, the former chancellor, asked if the policy of international administration for Kosovo was the "settled policy" of the Government and if it had been agreed by all the allies and with the neighbouring states.

Mr Cook replied: "It is going to have to be a much more hands-on operation than we envisaged at Rambouillet in the wake of the last four weeks. Yes, that is the view of the Government. It is a view in which we had close discussion with our major allies and I believe it is one... which is widely shared among our allies."

Michael Howard, the Shadow Foreign Secretary, pledged his party's continuing support for the action, adding that the Serbs' campaign of "ethnic cleansing" was the "most dire return to the dreadful reality" of the Second World War.

But while he would be the "last person to minimise the impact of the Nato campaign", it was time to face the "deeply unpalatable" fact that the bombing had not stopped the "ethnic cleansing".

Menzies Campbell, for the Liberal Democrats, said there were both "moral and pragmatic" reasons for stopping Serbia's "flagrant abuse of humanitarian standards". "I believe that these objectives which we have set out can be attained but it will not be easy... the threat and indeed the use of ground forces will be an essential component in the achievement of any settlement," he said.

"But if we are to ask our young men and increasingly our young women to risk their lives in the furtherance of political objectives, then surely they ought to know that they have had the endorsement of the House of Commons," he added.

Gwyneth Dunwoody, the Labour MP for Crewe and Nantwich, said it was "extremely difficult" on occasions for MPs who felt unease about the way the situation was developing without that being construed as undermining the efforts of Britain's forces or their support of government.

Alice Mahon, the Labour MP for Halifax, said that in one Yugoslav town she visited last weekend, Nato bombing had killed one civilian woman, injured five and flattened or damaged 400 "residential homes".

"This is not propaganda, I witnessed it with my own eyes," she said. "Of course, Nato can wreak massive damage and destroy Yugoslavia but that's not going to get a single Kosovan refugee home," she said."