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Thursday, March 25, 1999 Published at 06:32 GMT


UK jets safe after strikes

Explosions light up the Belgrade skyline

Six British Harrier jump jets have returned safely to their Italian base after being involved in Wednesday night's first Nato air strikes on Yugoslavia.

Kosovo: Special Report
The Royal Navy's submarine HMS Splendid was also involved, firing cruise missiles from the Adriatic - the first time Britain has used these weapons in anger.

With UK Prime Minister Tony Blair at a European leaders' summit in Berlin, details of British involvement were given in a House of Commons statement by his deputy John Prescott.

Joe Paley in Italy: "For these pilots it was their first taste of combat"
There were cheers from MPs when he announced that all the Harriers had returned safely.

Meanwhile, six United States Air Force B-52 bombers flew back to their UK base after taking part in the raids.

Tony Blair: "Any political leader thinks long and hard before committing forces to action"
Mr Blair defended the attack as "the right thing to do" to stop the Serbs' "vile oppression" of Kosovo Albanians.

"There are times when we have to stand up and fight for peace," he said.

Major Mark Phillips: "Glad to be back"
At RAF Fairford in Gloucestershire USAF spokesman Major Mark Phillips said there was a sense of relief among the B-52 crews.

The last of the giant planes returned safely to the base at 2110GMT after firing cruise missiles.

[ image: Major Mark Phillips: Sense of relief]
Major Mark Phillips: Sense of relief
"They are glad to be back and to have had a chance to practice their skills," said Maj Phillips.

He compared the crews to surgeons, who practice for years, "never wishing for somebody to have to have surgery".

"But when the occasion arises they are ready to use their skills," he added.

Lisa Holland: Public reaction has been mixed
"Nobody wants to have to go to war but when the decision's made it's our job," said B-52 crew member Major Chris Tipsword.

The Harrier GR7 jump jets had flown from their base on the Italian Adriatic coast.

It is understood they attacked Serbian attacks in Kosovo, a first taste of combat for the pilots.

A BBC reporter at the Gioia del Colle base said the crews had been "awestruck" at the sight of the explosions on the ground.

George Roberston: We're not bombing the Serbs to the negotiating table
In the Commons Mr Prescott paid tribute to British service personnel and their relatives.

"Tonight there will be families in Britain who will be feeling a real sense of anxiety.

Bob Sinkinson at the MOD: "A small but significant part of the operation"
"They can too feel a real sense of pride in the contribution their loved ones are making to peace and stability in Europe," he said.

Mr Prescott said the first targets had been air defences and "facilities relating to the suppression in Kosovo".

He said what happened next was up to Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, but warned MPs there would be "no instant end" to the suffering in Kosovo.

Opposition support

Leader of the Opposition William Hague was concerned about the future of the operation and the possible use of ground troops.

[ image: B-52 crews arriving back at Fairford]
B-52 crews arriving back at Fairford
But he supported Wednesday night's action: "A threat once made must be backed up and that is what is happening tonight."

Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown said Nato needed "a clear, definable and achievable political aim" which also indicated when the bombing should stop.

If there was to be no peace agreement the raids should be "seen as a first step towards establishing an international protectorate in Kosovo," he added.


Some Labour MPs attacked Nato's action, saying it had not been endorsed by the UN Security Council or the six-nation Contact Group on Kosovo.

Jeremy Corbyn MP: This undermines the whole principle of the UN
Veteran MP Tony Benn was among six left-wing backbenchers who warned that it was "likely to cause further civilian casualties and could lead to an escalation of conflict with consequent increased loss of life on all sides".

Meanwhile police said up to 400 protesters gathered outside Downing Street to condemn the bombing.

Some were holding flags and banners but there were no arrests or injuries in the peaceful protest.

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