Minister faces questions over use of forces: Hamilton summoned to defence committee as concern grows over troop deployment in the Gulf and the former Yugoslavia

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The Independent Online
THE COMMONS Defence Select Committee yesterday summoned Archie Hamilton, Minister of State for the Armed Forces, to reveal details of government plans for the deployment of British forces in the Gulf and the former Yugoslavia.

The unusual move of calling a minister to give first-hand evidence during a parliamentary recess reflects mounting concern among MPs that the use of troops to protect aid convoys could escalate out of control.

Sir Nicholas Bonsor, the Conservative chairman, said the committee had a duty to MPs and the public to scrutinise what the Government was doing on their behalf.

He said: 'I and as far as I know most of my committee members would agree that we would not wish to get involved in a peacekeeping operation, though we do support the need to give escort to humanitarian aid. There is obviously a great danger of the position escalating if we are not careful.'

While insisting that a recall of Parliament was not needed, Sir Nicholas said: 'There are swift- moving events in Bosnia and in the Gulf. It is very important that we keep on top of them and know exactly what the Government is doing.'

The committee's decision to examine Mr Hamilton came as Malcolm Rifkind, the Secretary of State for Defence, said Britain was likely to get the go-ahead from the United Nations this week to send nearly 2,000 troops to Bosnia. Deployment would take about a fortnight.

Mr Hamilton will appear before the committee on 22 September to answer questions on the precise role British troops would play in Bosnia, their terms of engagement, the equipment needed and, Sir Nicholas said, on whether 'the role they are being asked to carry out is the correct one'. The issue of terms of engagement came to the fore yesterday after the killing of two French UN soldiers.

Mr Rifkind said British forces had to have the right to fire back. Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, said troops had the right to fire back if fired upon. The right of self-defence was inherent in any peace-keeping situation, he said. But firing back, albeit defensively, may go beyond the current UN mandate.

About 1,800 troops, including the Cheshire Regiment, 120 men from the 2nd Battalion, the Royal Irish Regiment, a squadron from the 9/12 Royal Lancers and 35 Regiment Royal Engineers are ready to leave for Bosnia.

The select committee's decision to question Mr Hamilton received a strong welcome from George Foulkes, Labour defence spokesman. He said: 'In the absence of a decision to recall Parliament - which would have been preferable, so that all members, particularly the Opposition, could have questioned the Government - the next best thing is for the select committee to do so.'

Mr Foulkes said the issues the committee intended to raise did not imply any underlying attack on the principle of deploying aircraft in the Gulf or troops in Bosnia. 'But this rightly raises a number of questions. It is right that Parliament and the public should know more. It is particularly relevant when UN troops have been killed under still not fully confirmed cicumstances.'

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