Our responsibilities do not end at the Channel

Tony Blair explains why he is ready to send British troops to the Balkans

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AS THE Kosovo peace talks continue today in France, the British Army is preparing to send equipment to the Balkans as part of its contingency planning. Tanks, guns and military vehicles will be loaded up tomorrow for the voyage out to Greece. If the two sides choose peace, these assets form the backbone of the international military force necessary to underpin it.

Some people argue that Kosovo is a far away place that has little to do with Britain. Why should we get involved? Why there?

To them I say I will not ignore war and instability in Europe. Fighting in Bosnia since 1991 has shown we cannot take our continent for granted. Our responsibilities do not end at the English Channel. If we can prevent war, we should strive to do so. More than 200,000 people were killed in Bosnia and some 2 million forced from their homes. Fleeing ethnic cleansing and destruction in their own lands, many have ended up as refugees right across Europe, including in Britain. We do not want that repeated in Kosovo, but it could be.

In Bosnia we underestimated what would be needed to halt the conflict, and we underestimated the consequences of failing to do so. As the war dragged on, the international community was dragged in piecemeal. Our engagement was driven by humanitarian considerations. We were well intentioned, but we lacked the strategy and the military weight necessary to stop the fighting. It took us until 1995 to get our act together. International institutions like the UN and Nato came under strain in the process, as did our friendship with America.

We would be fooling ourselves if we pretended Kosovo did not have a similar potential to spiral out of control. Thousands of refugees are already flooding out of the region and into the EU, having lost their homes and their livelihoods. Widespread war in Kosovo could also trigger fighting throughout the Balkans.

Undoing the gains of the last few years in Bosnia, intervention would be inevitable. But the cost to us, and to those in the region, would be much higher. The burial of the 45 Albanians killed in the massacre at Racak that many of us saw on television last week, is a stark reminder of the price of failure. I do not want to see such atrocities repeated again and again and again.

That is why Britain and France, along with our European, American and Russian partners in the Contact Group, are united in our determination to bring peace to Kosovo. Ethnic Albanian and Serb negotiators are locked away in the Chateau of Rambouillet outside Paris, in a concerted effort to contain the fighting and end the conflict. It is largely thanks to the efforts of the two co-chairmen, Robin Cook and his French counterpart, Hubert Vedrine, as well as the American negotiator Chris Hill and his team, that the two sides are talking at all.

Peace in Kosovo requires a lasting political solution accepted by both sides. The London Contact Group established the framework on 29 January. It will not be easy for the two sides to achieve peace. But each side knows that we will come down hard on them if they deliberately obstruct a reasonable agreement.

If the two sides live up to their responsibilities and agree a deal, it will still have to be implemented. The two sides cannot do this alone. The violence has shattered confidence in the institutions that govern Kosovo, and destroyed the trust between the Serbian and Albanian communities.

So if there is to be a peace, it will have to be underwritten by the international community. The role of the civilian verifiers in Kosovo must continue and be extended. In addition, there will have to be a credible multinational military force on the ground to oversee the implementation of the agreement and provide the security necessary to overcome the fears and mistrust on both sides.

Only Nato has the necessary experience and capabilities to set up and lead such a force, as it has shown so successfully in Bosnia for more than three years. For this reason contingency plans have been drawn up in recent weeks to organise and deploy a force if it is needed. These troops are not going to Kosovo to fight the Serbs. They will go to underpin an agreement. Nor will it be a Nato-only force. We would like to have contributions from outside the Alliance too, including from Russia.

Any force is likely to be based on Nato's British-led Rapid Reaction Force, the ARRC. This is one of the most sophisticated and capable military detachments in the alliance. Britain contributes a large proportion of the ARRC's headquarters and a number of its military units. Its commander, General Sir Mike Jackson, is a distinguished British Army officer. He will command the international force if it deploys to Kosovo to implement an agreement.

Such a force must be ready to deploy quickly to follow up the momentum of any such peace agreement. That means it has to be assembled well ahead of time. That is why we and our allies have put forces on standby, ready to go to the region at short notice. It is also why the Cabinet decided last week to pre-position the vehicles and heavy equipment that would form the mechanised core of any deployment.

What happens next depends on the Serbs and Albanians in France. Peace lies within their grasp. They will bear a heavy responsibility if they fail to rise above the cycle of retaliation and recrimination and lead the way towards a better future for their people. One thing is certain: I will not agree to deploy British troops into Kosovo itself without a clear mission and clear objectives based on a political settlement agreed by both sides.

Kosovo's fate lies in the hands of the two delegations in Rambouillet. We can help, support, cajole and press. But only they can choose between war and peace.

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