Straw tells Labour MPs: Don't appease bin Laden

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Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, accused critics of the air strikes in Afghanistan of trying to "indulge and appease" Osama bin Laden yesterday as Labour MPs attacked the Government over the conflict.

Mr Straw told a Commons debate on the coalition against international terrorism that there was a clear choice between launching military strikes or "doing nothing".

In what appeared to be a rebuke to both Clare Short, the Secretary of State for International Development, and others who called for a quick end to the campaign, he also warned that the strikes would last "months, not days or weeks".

But Mr Straw was forced to go on the offensive against his own party after Labour backbenchers lined up to claim that there was "deep unease" among the public about the UK's involvement in the action.

Their concern was underlined earlier when six Labour MPs tabled a strongly worded Commons motion which urged the Prime Minister to halt the bombing. The emergency motion claimed that "the grief and suffering of innocent victims in the USA cannot be answered by the bombing and starvation of equally innocent victims in Afghanistan".

"The bombing in Afghanistan has resulted in tens of thousands more people fleeing their homes, has handed a daily propaganda victory to terrorists and caused substantial civilian deaths and injuries," it added.

Oona King, MP for Bethnal Green and Bow, said she was "highly concerned" about the targeting of the conflict and told the House of reports that a Red Cross centre had been hit by a bomb.

Lynne Jones, MP for Birmingham Selly Oak, said that as the 11 September attacks were an assault on "the whole world" it was appropriate for an international court to deal with it.

Bob Marshall-Andrews, MP for Medway, also called for such a tribunal, with the proviso that it should include Islamic judges on its bench.

Mr Straw said that every step was taken to make the targeting as precise as possible, though he conceded that some civilians would be hit. "This is a dismal truth of war, you can't avoid civilian deaths and casualties where there is military action," he said.

He rejected calls for an international tribunal to try Mr bin Laden for the 11 September atrocities, saying that the US had a "right and a duty" to use its own courts.

"Those who call for him to go on trial are not so much whistling in the wind as evading the clearest and only choice: whether to indulge and to appease bin Laden by doing nothing or to defeat his evil by taking effective military action," he said.

Mr Straw pointed out that the International Criminal Court currently being devised by 60 nations would not be retrospective. The Foreign Secretary added that critics of UK military action in Kosovo had been proven wrong by the fall of Slobodan Milosevic from office.

He placed in the Commons library a copy of Britain's war aims, including acting in self-defence to dismantle the terror network and those who harboured it.

But several Labour MPs kept up the pressure on Mr Straw, with Tam Dalyell and Gwyneth Dunwoody criticising the scope and nature of the military action. Ms Dunwoody, MP for Crewe and Nantwich, said: "The British people will support this intervention as long as it is short, clearly defined and they know the end of it."