Our aircraft are performing a vital humanitarian task in the No Fly Zones. The zones were set up after the Gulf War in response to a situation of overwhelming humanitarian necessity, when thousands of Iraqis were fleeing brutal repression at the hands of the Iraqi regime. That same regime continues to persecute its own civilians, as Patrick Cockburn's article ("Baghdad riots over killing of Ayatollah", 21 February) makes clear.
Since last December Iraqi aircraft have systematically violated the zones on more than 100 occasions. Iraqi air defence systems have shot at and threatened our pilots. We have always made it clear that we will take robust and appropriate defensive measures should our forces be threatened. We have no hidden agenda. When Iraq stops violating the zones, we will stop responding. It is as simple as that.
Fisk and Alagiah also query UN sanctions. Food and medicine imports have never been prohibited under sanctions. But the Iraqi regime has consistently refused to take advantage of this. It prefers to allow its people to starve in a cynical attempt to get sanctions lifted without complying with its obligations to the UN, in particular on weapons of mass destruction.
The report last week by the UN Secretary-General on the implementation of the "oil for food" programme makes interesting reading. The contrast between the programme in the north, where there are few, if any, shortages of food and essential drugs, and the situation in the centre and south is stark. The difference is that the UN implements the programme in the north. Elsewhere, the Iraqi government is responsible but persistently obstructs the programme. As just one example of Iraqi obstruction, the UN report points out that only 15 per cent of medical equipment has been distributed, of which only 2 to 3 per cent has been installed. These facts, sadly, speak for themselves.
The UK, unlike Saddam, is concerned for the Iraqi people. The oil-for- food programme was a UK initiative and we have consistently taken the lead in the UN in refining and improving it. We are putting forward new ideas to the UN panel which is considering ways of improving the humanitarian situation. We will continue to work both for improvements in the humanitarian programme, and for additional humanitarian assistance. But we also call upon the Iraqi government to comply with its obligations to the international community and to its own people.
Minister of State, Foreign & Commonwealth Office London SW1