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Breakfast with Frost Sunday, 19 May, 2002, 12:46 GMT 13:46 UK
Hoon defends Marines' chief
Geoff Hoon MP, defence secretary
Geoff Hoon MP, defence secretary

Please note "BBC Breakfast with Frost" must be credited if any part of this transcript is used

DAVID FROST: Well we talked, we saw the front pages, delighted that the Minister of Defence is here himself, Geoff Hoon, Geoff good morning.

GEOFF HOON: Good morning.

DAVID FROST: There are three big headlines in the papers today, I wonder what your reaction, Marine's chief under fire for Afghan farce, Geoff Hoon, defence Secretary, was facing mounting pressure, it says, to sack the Royal Marines Commander in Afghanistan last night following accusations that the mission had become a mess. One senior MOD official said last night Brigadier Lane is a man out of his depth and he should be sacked, the whole operation is quickly becoming a farce, are you about to sack Brigadier Lane?

GEOFF HOON: The first I'd heard of this story was late last night when someone in the Ministry of Defence alerted me to this story going to appear in a Sunday morning newspaper and have to say it's complete nonsense, I have every confidence in Brigadier Lane, he's doing a tremendous job in very difficult conditions and he deserves and gets our complete support.

DAVID FROST: Well that's very clear and even though we haven't yet fired a shot yet, have we, we haven't found anybody yet?

GEOFF HOON: Well we have found people and the operations that have been conducted over the weekend in support of Australian Special Forces who came under sustained fire on Thursday afternoon, a tremendous example of just how skilled the Royal Marines are, just how good they are at doing their job because within a matter of hours decisions were taken to deploy those Royal Marines as part of a coalition operation. We're working alongside allies here, you can't expect it will always be the Royal marines who fire the shots, but certainly shots have been fired by coalition forces and they have achieved remarkable success.

DAVID FROST: By coalition forces, not, not by ours. But then at the same time it says here in the report allied jets pass wedding party, that in fact the British Army was at the centre of deepening controversy last night following an extraordinary sequence of military blunders, they say, the Royal marines latest mission has ended amid confusion after an American air strike reported killed eleven members of a wedding party by mistake, that in fact these were not Al Queda forces, they were in fact innocent civilians, is that true?

GEOFF HOON: I know nothing about that because that did not involve British Forces, it was not anything to do with the Royal Marines nor with the particular operation in which the Royal Marines were engaged.

DAVID FROST: What about the remark here of Brigadier Lane when he said last week, it's true to say that we did not encounter the enemy during this operation, and then this is really putting the best, best face on it, from a strategic point of view this is an encouraging sign?

GEOFF HOON: Well it is an encouraging sign because actually what is happening is that we are denying space in Afghanistan to the terrorists, to Al Queda, they're not standing and fighting although in the past they have done that and it's right that we should use whatever force is appropriate to make sure that they cannot provide a threat both to the people of Afghanistan and to the wider world. We've seen what they're capable of and it's right that we should take appropriate action to deal with them.

DAVID FROST: And what is the latest news this morning on the bug, is there one bug or two bugs, I'm not talking here of electronic bugs I'm talking of the men who've been ill, 38 been ill now is it?

GEOFF HOON: I think it's rather less than that who are suffering from what is called the winter vomiting bug and a common bug which sadly maybe as many 600,000 people suffer from in this country. We've had a few very serious cases because of the extreme conditions in Afghanistan and the impact on the people there of high altitude and dehydration. We've made sure that those people have been recovered back either to the United Kingdom or to medical treatment in Germany. By and large this seems now to be under control, it's a very contagious virus and obviously we're taking the right steps to sort it out.

DAVID FROST: And it's definitely not germ warfare you've decided, you've established that, and it's not in danger of having fatalities?

GEOFF HOON: I was very worried at one stage, one particular individual was very seriously affected but I'm pleased to say his condition has now stabilised, he's in hospital receiving treatment and I'm told this morning on the way to recovery.

DAVID FROST: And the bug is due to Army medical cuts, is another story today which says crippling financial cuts to military medical services were responsible for the Army's failure to identify a common virus as the cause of the mystery illness that affected British troops in Afghanistan last week, have those cuts had that effect?

GEOFF HOON: It's simply nonsense, this is a common bug, between 600,000 and a million people every year suffer from this particular bug in the United Kingdom. Its unfortunate that it's made its way to Afghanistan and we've seen the consequences but it is now, I hope, under control.

DAVID FROST: And in terms of our men out there, we've got, we've got 1500 in the original and then we've got 1700 Marines and so on, we're hoping that Turkey will take over they, they didn't take over in April but we're hoping they'll take over the leadership of the original force by the end of June?

GEOFF HOON: Well they certainly agreed to do so, we're negotiating on some of the final details, the 26th of June is the date for the end of the current United Nations Security Council mandate and it looks likely that that will be renewed, there's an agreement in principle to do that, that's the sort of date that we'll be working towards.

DAVID FROST: And so leaving aside the 1700, the 1500 in that force, will that go down when Turkey take over or will we keep that 1500 there.

GEOFF HOON: It will go down substantially because the leadership role that we have been carrying out obviously requires particular individuals to do particular jobs that will not be necessary once Turkey takes over. But we will still have a, a reasonable presence, not 1500, rather less than that, nevertheless we will still be contributing to that force.

DAVID FROST: Right and what about the 1700, the Marines, will that, will that figure stay the same or, I mean obviously people may be replaced but will that stay at about 1700?

GEOFF HOON: Well when the Royal Marines were first deployed I said that we were planning for them to be there for around three months and that still remains the assumption so again in the same sort of time frame we would expect there to be a reduction in our numbers involved in offensive operations but that does depend on what they find, on the level of activity and particularly on requests from allies, after all this was a request from the United States to deploy these forces, we have to have regard to the conditions on the ground.

DAVID FROST: But everybody says we are trying to lead to a position where the Afghans can police themselves and police that very, very difficult border and so on, but other people who know Afghanistan say that will take five or ten years before they're able to do that, so we've got to look at a situation where there'll be some British troops there indefinitely?

GEOFF HOON: I don't accept indefinitely, we are obviously working with the Americans on training Afghan forces, they have a very significant proud reputation of military activity for themselves so this is not starting from zero or a plain piece of paper but obviously it is important that we move Afghan forces into the sensitive areas in order that they should be responsible for their own security. But bear in mind that we're coming up now to the next stage of the Bonn process, the effort to rebuild, reconstruct Afghanistan, the Loya Jirga will bring together senior people from Afghanistan but to build a new government, to support that.

DAVID FROST: But I mean in five or ten years there'll be, there'll still be British troops there won't there?

GEOFF HOON: I recognise that the international community will have some involvement but I don't see any reason to suggest that British troops should be there on that timescale, what I think we would be doing...

DAVID FROST: How long do you think they will do it?

GEOFF HOON: I think it's impossible at this stage until we particularly get through the next stage of the Loya Jirga how long it will be necessary to have British forces in Afghanistan, we'll certainly help but I suspect, as we've seen for example in Sierra Leone, that it will move from offensive operations towards training, advice, we've done that very successfully in Sierra Leone, there has just been a remarkable election.

DAVID FROST: Yeah, we were going to be there for six, six weeks originally, it's two years now?

GEOFF HOON: Well equally I recall other journalists putting to me that we were going to be there indefinitely and we're not, we're providing advice and assistance but the election has taken place, government has been elected and it's important that we recognise a great success for a combination of efforts, not only the military effort that we made initially, but also support from the Department for International Development, from the Foreign Office making sure that Sierra Leone has a future looking after their own security.

DAVID FROST: Geoff thank you very much indeed.

[BREAK FOR NEWS] DAVID FROST: We've almost given up on finding Osama bin Laden haven't we?

GEOFF HOON: No we haven't, we are determined to find him, indeed in the last couple of weeks Americans have had people on the ground trying to find traces of DNA that they can compare to his family. So a determined effort is still being made to locate him.

DAVID FROST: And what about the Taliban and Al Queda, where are they now, we assume they're across the borders in Pakistan but we don't know whether there's 500 of them or 5,000?

GEOFF HOON: What we do know is that not only are they across the border but they're coming across the border into Afghanistan, that's the reason for these operations, we know that Al Queda are still trying to infiltrate into Afghanistan, we know that they are attacking coalition forces and we know that they're determined to disturb the Afghan reconstruction process, that's why we're taking offensive action there.

DAVID FROST: And for those people who say it's not yet a success, this mission because we haven't found Osama bin Laden, we haven't removed all the Taliban and we haven't removed all the Al Queda and so at the moment it's a 50-50 operation, what would you say to that?

GEOFF HOON: Well I wouldn't accept that, we've got to keep up the effort, we've got to make sure that Al Queda cannot regroup and reorganise and cannot provide a threat either to Afghanistan or to the wider world, that's why it's a considerable success to date, there's more to do.

DAVID FROST: And Peter Mandelson said in his articles in the Guardian this week, the trouble with new Labour is we've, you know we hype more than we are achieving, do you think that's a fair accusation in this case?

GEOFF HOON: No I don't I believe that we are setting out very clearly what has happened, I only wish sometimes journalists with little, would listen a little more carefully to what we're actually saying.

DAVID FROST: Well we've been listening this morning, thank you very much indeed.

GEOFF HOON: Thank you.

DAVID FROST: And that's all we've got time for this morning. Next week we'll be talking, among others, to David Yelland the editor of Britain's biggest selling newspaper the Sun and one week later than promised the Palestinian Chief Negotiator Saeb Erekat will be joining us live and in vision from Ramallah.


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