Parliament: PM'S STATEMENT; More troops being sent to Macedonia

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TONY BLAIR insisted yesterday that Nato's military action in Yugoslavia would continue until all its demands for a peace settlement were met by President Slobodan Milosevic. The Prime Minister announced "substantial reinforcements" of British troops in the region.

In his first Commons statement since the Easter recess, Mr Blair said a second Armoured Battle Group would be sent to support military personnel in Greece and Macedonia to boost the number of troops by about 1,800, to 6,300. "They are being sent so that the UK can be in a position to play our proper role in the international effort to ensure the refugees are able to return to Kosovo in safety," he said.

The Prime Minister stressed there could be no compromise in the commitment to defeat the "hideous policy" of ethnic cleansing. "This action will take time. Dictators like Milosevic do not bow down at the first setback to their plans. But as the weather improves, his forces will have fewer hiding places." He told MPs that every day the air attacks were causing further damage to "Milosevic's military machine".

He added: "The conflict we now face in Kosovo is a test of our commitment and our resolve to ensure that the 21st century does not begin with a continuing reminder in Europe of the worst aspects of the century now drawing to a close."

William Hague, the Conservative leader, expressed his party's continuing support. But he added: "You have said there was no question of committing ground troops to an invasion of Kosovo in advance of a political settlement. More recently you have stated you are keeping all options under review. Was the second of these statements intended in any way to modify the first?" Mr Blair said the objectives would remain exactly the same as Nato had set out.

But backbench concern erupted again when Tony Benn, the Labour MP for Chesterfield, said: "If the air war goes on for weeks and months and even longer, with all the death and destruction that it causes, what contribution do you think that will make to long-term peace and stability in the Balkans?"

Martin Bell, the former BBC war correspondent and Independent MP for Tatton, said to Mr Blair: "Is it not true that circumstances on the ground can only be changed by boots on the ground? Do we not have a moral, as well as a military imperative, to go for a ground intervention, whether opposed or unopposed?"

Alice Mahon, the Labour MP for Halifax, questioned what was "humanitarian" about the action when Kosovo Albanians were driven out of their country and the Serbs were being bombed back to the "Stone Age".

The Labour MP Clive Soley said his Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush constituency contained more Serbians than most others. "Although they are desperately unhappy about the bombing they also know that there is a sense of shame among the Serb people for what is being done in their name. Ethnic cleansing is no part of Serbian culture."