Major takes high ground against Bosnia assault

Ashdown raises Srebrenica claims. Labour upset over Question Time. Lords change overturned
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John Major yesterday angrily brushed aside a claim that the British government acquiesced in a UN abandonment of the Muslim enclave of Srebrenica, leaving 8,000 people to die at the hands of Bosnian Serbs. Earlier this week the Independent revealed that Britain stayed silent at a closed meeting in New York when Lieutenant-General Bernard Janvier, the commander of all UN forces in former Yugoslavia, advised diplomats to quit the safe areas.

Paddy Ashdown provoked the Prime Minister's ire at Question Time by asking if the charge was correct. The controversy was joined last night by Malcolm Rifkind, the Foreign Secretary, who said the Liberal Democrat leader's inference that the Government condoned a policy to abandon Srebrenica was "quite disgraceful".

Mr Ashdown asked Mr Major to consider three dates: "On 11 July Srebrenica fell and 8,000 young men were taken away and massacred. On 31 May I asked the then defence secretary [Mr Rifkind] for an assurance that the policy of the defence of Srebrenica had not changed and he gave me that assurance. It is now revealed, or claimed, that on 24 May with the full acquiescence of the British government, the UN decided to abandon Srebrenica to its fate. Is that correct?"

A regular visitor to Bosnia, Mr Ashdown called for more robust action from the start of the crisis. His Question Time warnings of "too little, too late" have always touched a raw spot with Mr Major, but his suggestion that the Government turned its back on the enclave got a particularly bitter response.

"I think the Right Honourable Gentleman just occasionally might do the British forces and the British government the credit of acknowledging what they have done. What he is saying is not correct. He has been wrong throughout the whole of the exercise. Time after time, he has denigrated what the British government have done and what British forces have done," the Prime Minister said. He was plain wrong in alleging Mr Ashdown has criticised the forces, but quite deliberately made the government-forces link. "There are thousands of people alive today in Bosnia because of what was done by the British government and British forces."

Mr Ashdown later wrote to the Prime Minister, pressing him again on the Independent's report. If it was correct, he asked, how did Mr Major explain his government's actions in this "terrible matter"?

Mr Rifkind replied, recalling Government condemnation of the Bosnian Serb offensive and urging Mr Ashdown to retract his allegation. "The Government were not at the time and are not now aware of any UN policy decision to abandon Srebrenica or other safe areas," wrote the Foreign Secretary. In fact it was not maintained in the Independent's report that there was a formal policy to abandon the safe area.

Mr Major had come to the House determined to stamp on Labour's charge that the Tory party has lurched to the right. Tony Blair gave him enough of an opening with a call to "stop pandering to the right wing" and keep the railways as a public service.

The Prime Minister said if Mr Blair thought bringing more choice to parents and opportunity to children was a lurch to the right, the country would not agree. Nor was spending more on patients' health, dealing with asylum abuses or standing up for Britain in Europe.

"The Labour leader knows that the centre-right of politics is our ground and there is no way a squatter like him will be able to rest on it. He may regard himself as the Trojan Horse of socialism, but he will find it's our land on which he is parking and there is no room for him."

Speaker Betty Boothroyd issued a sharp reminder to Tory backbenchers that the 15 minutes of Questions to Prime Minister is for exactly that - not about greasy invites to knock the Opposition. After Mr Major had been asked by loyalists to stir up Labour's agonies over grant-maintained schools, all-women shortlists and cannabis, Graham Allen, MP for Nottingham North, asked Miss Boothroyd to rule on the "abuse" of Question Time.

"Cabinet ministers, all ministers, are responsible to this House for the workings of the Government and of their department - not for the attitude of the Opposition or any of the minority parties," Miss Boothroyd replied, no doubt more in hope than expectation of any change in MPs' tactics.

The Government reversed a defeat inflicted by peers on its package to curb discrimination against disabled people. The Lords voted in June to widen a definition in the Disability Discrimination Bill to cover people like asthma sufferers and those with mild cerebral palsy. The legislation makes it unlawful to discriminate against the disabled in employment and in the provision of goods, facilities and services, but falls well short of the demands of campaigners for disabled people's rights.