Briefing by the Secretary of State for Defence
George Robertson: 'The next move is Milosevic's. At any time he can choose peace and end the conflict'

Friday March 26, 1999

As you will be aware, last night Nato forces once again attacked targets in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. British aircraft were among them. I will provide some further details in a short while, after which the Chief of the Defence Staff, General Sir Charles Guthrie, will say a few words.

Yesterday both British Houses of Parliament had the opportunity to hold debates on the Kosovo crisis. Both Houses were full. The mood was sombre and determined, reflecting the seriousness with which the Government and opposition parties view the developing events.

I noted that although a variety of views were expressed, there was a strong consensus across the political spectrum that the difficult choice we had to make was the right one.

This consensus is international too. As I said yesterday, Nato action was taken with the agreement of all 19 member countries and has since attracted support from many other states.

This sends a strong message that the international community is not prepared to stand idly by and watch a terrible human tragedy continue to unfold.

Slobodan Milosevic has tried to imply that Nato is acting without the consent of the rest of the international community. Apart from the backing of the 19 democratic member governments of Nato, support from elsewhere is strong. As you can see on the slide, we have a table showing the membership of the UN Security Council. I think you can see clearly where the weight of international opinion really lies. The simple truth is that very few members of the international community have any time for Milosevic. None have any sympathy with his murderous campaign of ethnic warfare in Kosovo.

Last night we inflicted further serious damage to Milosevic's murder machine. There is not going to be one knock-out blow but, day after day, if he does not stop his genocidal attacks on the Kosovar people, we will take larger and larger lumps out of his military force.

The next move is Milosevic's. At any time he can choose peace and end the conflict. He can tell the world that he will stop the brutal and merciless attacks on Kosovar civilians, the razing of Kosovar villages, and the savage attacks on Kosovar women, children and old people. He can call his uniformed thugs back to Belgrade with one phone call.

The choice is his, and we will believe him and his protestations when he looks again at the Rambouillet accord which would give him, his people and the Kosovars, the peace which they reasonably expect.

Nato's military objective remains clear and simple. It is to avert an inevitable humanitarian catastrophe by disrupting the violent attacks currently being carried out by the Yugoslav security forces against the Kosovar Albanians and to weaken their ability to conduct such repression in the future. This will obviously take time. We will see this through, however long it takes.

Sadly President Milosevic has continued his brutality against the civilian population in Kosovo. Yesterday, I referred to villages in the areas around Podujevo, Srbica and Komorane being razed to the ground.

Yesterday, the Yugoslav forces persisted in their brutality. We have been watching to see whether they have been ceasing their butchery. Our intelligence indicates that they have not.

Reports have been received of full-scale reprisals against towns in Kosovo. We believe that two villages in North-east Albania were shelled yesterday. On the same day, Yugoslavian forces attacked a village in Kosovo, surrounding and blockading it before shelling the population, who were trapped inside.

We are also aware that the notorious paramilitary leader Arkan, whose men have been linked with some of the nastiest episodes of the Bosnian war has been touting his wares in Belgrade.

The regime is rattled, as the decision yesterday to expel all journalists from Nato countries clearly shows. Other foreign journalists have found their freedom of movement and freedom to report what they have seen severely curtailed.

Within an hour of the first attack on Yugoslavian targets on Wednesday evening around 30 journalists and members of television camera crews were arrested, and others were threatened with violence.

This cannot be justified on grounds of national security. It is a clear mark of President Milosevic's intention to control fully the levers of free speech.

Yugoslavian democracy is being deliberately destroyed. One radio station has already been closed. State controlled television is dominated by the promotion of the regime and of staged political rallies. Independent newspapers are fined under draconian laws.

We must not forget the orchestrated scenes of violence we saw last night. These resulted in damage to the US and British embassies in Skopje, and the destruction of buildings used by international organisations in Bosnia.

These are the very institutions which bring aid and the hope of reconstruction to that troubled country.

I am glad to say that all of the staff at the British embassy are safe and well, and under the protection of Nato forces in Macedonia. But I warn the men of violence in the region that we will act quickly and decisively to defend our people in the Balkans.

Our people are there to help support a humanitarian mission, and they will get the protection they fully deserve. Plans are in place to protect British personnel, and we will not hesitate to put them into effect.

This, then, is some of the background to Nato's determined action. The second night of strikes is a clear indication that we are fully prepared to keep going for as long as it takes to achieve our military objectives.

Before I hand over to General Guthrie, I want to make one final point. I am frequently asked whether ground forces will be needed to achieve our objectives. Clearly, air power might take some time to curb Milosevic's military machine. But that does not mean that ground forces are required to achieve our aims.

We have not set ourselves the task of defeating the Yugoslav army. We have a limited objective to reduce Milosevic's repressive capability and we are confident that we will achieve that. We have no intention of sending ground forces into Kosovo, except with the agreement of both parties.

This is a limited military action with a strictly humanitarian objective, and which we believe we can achieve through air strikes. We do not think it would be right to escalate this into a major ground invasion, in which many lives might be lost and in which the humanitarian crisis might be made worse.

I will now ask General Guthrie to provide further details on last night's mission.

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