Parliament: Embassy bomb `act of gross incompetence'

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The Independent Online
THE TORIES came close to breaking the bi-partisan approach towards Nato's military action against Yugoslavia yesterday when they condemned the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade as an "act of gross incompetence".

Michael Howard, the shadow Foreign Secretary, was jeered by Labour MPs during an emergency statement on Kosovo, when he said the impression was being gained that "the military action is being made up as we go along and has not properly been thought through".

But while Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, expressed "deep regret" over the "tragic error", he insisted during angry exchanges that there could be "no greater clarity than Nato's objectives". Mr Cook said: "What is required is some clarity of the support of the Opposition. I wish the Opposition would not keep shifting the basis for which they [express] their support."

Later, the controversy deepened when a senior Labour Party source said: "This is typical opportunism from Michael Howard. Opposing the war did not do Alex Salmond any good - it is not going to do the Tories any good either."

During his most critical speech on the bombing so far, Mr Howard said: "The bombing of the Chinese embassy was not only a tragic mistake, but also an act of gross incompetence... almost any street map of Belgrade clearly shows the location of the embassy. Seven weeks into the military action, we appear to be no nearer to achieving the primary objective - to avoid a humanitarian disaster."

Mr Cook stressed that while Nato would welcome a settlement through a diplomatic solution, it would not accept it at any price. Pledging Nato's resolve to increase the air campaign, he warned that if Milosevic "felt any reduction in our air campaign, or sensed any weakening of our resolve, there would be no prospect of him agreeing to our demands".

Mr Cook added: "I cannot understand those who focus on the tens who have been casualties of Nato's military campaign to the exclusion of the tens of thousands who have been butchered by Milosevic in Kosovo."

Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrat defence spokesman, said the "unacceptable error" of bombing the embassy had handed the Milosevic regime an "unparalleled propaganda opportunity".

In reply, Mr Cook said it was impossible to "wage a military campaign of this intensity without mistakes".

Martin Bell, the independent MP for Tatton, said: "Are you aware of the dismay felt in the country that the greatest military alliance on earth seems to be like the gang that can't shoot straight?"

Tony Benn, the Labour MP for Chesterfield, described the war as "bloody and indiscriminate" and accused the Government of losing touch with reality. The US Congress would not support the use of ground troops and the Government was misleading the refugees into believing that the current action would allow them to return home, he said.