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Wednesday, June 16, 1999 Published at 13:24 GMT 14:24 UK


UK defence secretary answers your questions

Put your questions to George Robertson

In a special World Today programme for BBC World, UK Defence Secretary George Robertson answered questions put by News Online users on the Kosovo crisis.

Here we present his answers to your questions, as put by Donald MacCormick.

Donald MacCormick puts your questions to UK Defence Secretary George Robertson
Donald MacCormick:
Hello welcome to the Ministry of Defence in London. Every day, for almost three months now, journalists have gathered here at the heart of Westminster to listen to and to question senior politicians and military leaders about the twists and turns of the campaign in Kosovo. Now it's your chance to put the questions. With me here is the British Defence Secretary - George Robertson - who's promised to try and answer as many as your points, whether they come by phone, by fax or by e-mail, as we can cram in over the next half hour or so. So let's proceed straight away to the first caller on the phone who is Nick from South Africa. He is a Serb who left Serbia some 25 years ago. Nick you're through to George Robertson.

Click here to watch the programme
Nick Dimitrijevic:
Good afternoon Mr Minister.


Nick Dimitrijevic:
I would like to ask you if the Serbs have to leave Kosovo where would they have to go to and after all Kosovo is Serbia? Can you please tell us?

Kosovo: Special Report
Well I hope they won't leave Kosovo at all. If they've done nothing during this period then they have nothing to fear and the UN civil representative who will be there, who will be administering Kosovo on behalf of the international community has got to be even handed and so will the forces be and indeed just to prove that this morning some of the K-For troops - British troops - were shot at by some KLA fighters and they attacked them and have arrested them and they will be dealt with in the same way as anybody else. So I hope that the Serbs will not leave, if they leave then presumably they will become the responsibility of the Yugoslav government and the Serb government but we want an inter-ethnic Kosovo - one Kosovo - and not one that has got ethnic cleansing in the other direction.

Nick would you like to follow up on that?

Nick Dimitrijevic:
Yes perhaps I would. How would you envisage protecting those minority Serbs that there are very thousands left living in Kosovo?

Well that is how we're going to do it. The way in which the K-For troops did it this morning. The KLA gunmen had apparently, allegedly, killed a Serb and were conducting other operations and they were arrested by K-For troops. So just as there have been Serb troops and paramilitaries murdering large numbers of Albanians inside Kosovo, we've got to be even handed now with all of the groups there. K-For troops will do that and they've proved it already. And I hope that those who have nothing to fear who have done nothing wrong will stay behind because the 10% of the population who are of Serb extraction have as much right to live in Kosovo as the 90% Albanian population who were driven out of their homeland.

George Robertson thanks. We're going to move on now to caller - a second caller - who is Liridon Latifi. He is a 16-year-old refugee evacuated from Kosovo now living in a refugee camp in Finland. Would you like to put your question please?

Liridon Latifi in Finland - can you hear us? Put your question to George Robertson please.

Okay I'm sorry we've lost contact with Finland for the time being. Let's press on. Same part of the world to Tallin in Estonia and Kristjan Koiv - Kristjan Koiv put your question to George Robertson please.

Kristjan Koiv:
How do you do Mr Robertson?

Hello it's very nice to speak to you.

Kristjan Koiv:
I would like to know if Nato leaders would be punished for war crimes against Serbian people. I agree that Serbian president should go to trial if he has committed war crimes but Nato has done terrible things too - bombing TV station and power stations and other civilian objects. Do you think that the killing of Serbian citizens is not a crime?

The decision about who is to be indicted for war crimes is a matter for the independent war crimes tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and I have no control over it, it is responsible, independently, to the United Nations and they are the ones who have indicted Milosevic. But I would say to you that we have not broken international law in Nato - not at any point. We have only attacked military targets and military related targets, even the TV station was part of the military network and was pumping out some of the most racist and horrifying publicity to keep this war going. And at all times we have made sure that our targeting was precise, avoided civilians, avoided civilian property and that is in direct contrast to the Yugoslav forces who were deliberately targeting civilians and they were deliberately mowing down their homes.

Kristjan thanks very much for your call. Let's move on now to another caller phoning from Singapore. Menon Sankara. Menon Sankara what's your question please?

Menon Sankara:
Good afternoon Mr Secretary. Why didn't Nato intervene in former Yugoslavia when Mr Milosevic was conducting his ethnic cleansing there in Bosnia Herzegovina please?

Well we did. In 1995 Nato did intervene and the intervention force at that point used force against the warring factions there. That is now being organised by S-For again with Nato command and control and we're bringing peace back to that part of the world. You may say that we were too late in acting, that we delayed too far, but ultimately we did use force in exactly the same way as we've done so in Kosovo and because of exactly the same thing. And I hope now that Milosevic, if he survives at all, will have learned the lesson and anybody else who wants to solve problems by attacking civilians will also have learned that Nato and indeed the international community will not stand by and see it happen.

Menon Sankara in Singapore anything else you want to ask - add to that?

Menon Sankara:
No, no I think I understand the British and Americans who are intervening at least now and the things is I hope things will come down and settle down peacefully there.

Okay Menon Sankara thanks very much indeed for joining us, thank you.

Now let's move on to some of your faxes and e-mails. I'll run through the first lot - three or four at a time - and then Mr Robertson can perhaps respond to them as a batch. First of all from Milos Pavlovic in Belgrade Yugoslavia:

"I am a Serb," he says. "Who gave you the right to target my children and leave them without electricity, water and bread?"

Also one from Finland (Pasi Peuranen):

"Is Nato now engaged in ethnically cleansing Serbs from Kosovo? If not, why what is called the discriminatory treatment now going on, for example, killing Serbs who are unwilling to be disarmed while allowing the KLA to keep their weapons?"

And lastly here:

Ivan from Belgrade - significantly perhaps no surname given, Mr Robertson, given the gist of his question - which is:

"How can the British government help people in Serbia? Our people are against Milosevic but we can't do anything to make him resign - factories, hospitals, everything is destroyed - how can you help us?"

Well these are good questions and rightly put. Can I just answer the last one first. How can we help those who are opposed to Milosevic? And there are a lot of people, I believe, in Yugoslavia who oppose Milosevic and what he's done and I think that they will eventually learn of the horrors that were taking place in their name. The answer to the question is they should support the brave political leaders who spoke out during this conflict, who had the courage and the decency to say that what was happening in Kosovo was wrong and I believe that they deserve support and that Serbia demands its place again in the world and can only do so without Milosevic. And I hope the decent, good people of Serbia and they are the majority will assert themselves and deny what has been done to their nation's name.

To the other question about saying that we are ethnically cleansing the Serbs in Kosovo. I would say that that is totally wrong. There are some who will be leaving Kosovo just now because they will have done terrible things against their neighbours and against those of the Albanian population and maybe they will flea into Serbia but ultimately they will face justice if they've done. But for those who have not done wrong, we say stay and K-For will act independently and will act even handedly. And already KLA gunmen have been disarmed and arrested. You will have seen pictures on television of British troops disarming some KLA gunmen who would not hand over their guns. So we're taking an even handed attitude even although the vast majority of the violence was done by the Serbian forces and paramilitaries.

Mr Robertson we'll go on, if we may, to the next live phone caller who is David Fordham speaking from Bangkok in Thailand. He's the British director of an aeronautics company. Mr Fordham your question to Mr Robertson please.

David Fordham can you hear us? Put your question to George Robertson if you're there?

It sounds as if he isn't, at least for the present. Let's move on to another e-mail secretary of state. This one is from Martina - Budapest in Hungary. We've all seen pictures over the last 24 hours or so of alleged mass graves in Kosovo and Martina in Budapest asks:

"How do you know the bodies in the mass graves are in Kacanik are Albanians? Couldn't the KLA be responsible? They have done this in the past. And perhaps Nato air strikes killed them."

Well there is no prospect of it being Nato air strikes having caused that and these graves. And of course we've already seen some of the people who live in that village who are testifying to the fact that Serbs troops did it. But of course we'll soon find out because the war crimes investigators will come in, they will exhume the bodies and they will have to be satisfied as to what happened to them. I think this is just the first of very many war graves that we're going to find mass graves as a result of the genocidal violence that the Serb troops and the Serb paramilitaries were committing throughout Kosovo - this is just the very tip of a very large and horrible ice berg.

And now Mr Robertson it's live to Bangkok in Thailand where we have on the line David Fordham the British director of an aeronautics company there. Mr Fordham your question please.

David Fordham:
Yes. Minister this despot dictator has created havoc in his own country by pitting his own people against his own people. How can they live together in harmony after this? Two and a half months ago he could have had what he has now and this has cost hundreds of lives. He really doesn't care and is only concerned for himself and his power. Nato, the UN and the international community must make him face the charges for which he's been indicted together with his cronies and the army commanders who gave their subordinates orders to kill innocent civilians ...

David Fordham thanks ...

David Fordham:
... including little children.

Thanks for that.

Well you're very right. Some terrible crimes were committed and the international criminal tribunal will be looking for the evidence and those who were responsible will eventually face justice just like the indictee last week arrested by British S-For troops in Bosnia who is now facing justice in the Hague. And that is the way the long arm of justice will eventually catch Milosevic. The people of Yugoslavia who have been told lies and given propaganda will have to rise up against this man. And there is an alternative political leadership there and I hope that they will support the brave people who stood against the genocidal policies of ethnically cleansing Kosovo. And I believe and I hope that they will and they will re-enter the true democratic family of nations of Europe again.

David Fordham in Bangkok thanks very much indeed. Now secretary of state a batch of questions because a lot of people wanted to ask about the Russians moving into Pristina before Nato. Here's just three of them.

From Alain Merheje in Saudi Arabia for example:

"For seven weeks Nato bombed roads, bridges and railways supposedly to prevent the Yugoslav army from sending in reinforcements. How can the Russian army reach Pristina in just a few hours?"

Bryan Williamson in New Zealand says:

"I'm concerned that if the Russians - that the Russians may force a de facto partition of Kosovo if Nato does not reverse this presence."

And thirdly from Gunnel Nystrom in Finland:

"People in my country with bitter experiences from the Second World War are baffled by the naiveté of Western leaders with regard to the Russians. The Russians are sympathetic to the Serbs and will now make life very difficult for Nato. What can be done about that?"

Well on the question of bridges. Of course we did destroy many bridges and many roads and we did disrupt the violence that was going on by heading at the military machine but of course a lot of bridges were restored, a lot of them were rebuilt and that is why it was possible for the Russians to drive down from Bosnia and is why it's possible for the Serb troops actually to get out of Kosovo itself. That's a reality of modern warfare. And Milosevic himself was talking about rebuilding the bridges at Novisad [phon.] and saying that they would take 40 days to rebuild. We cannot permanently destroy these bridges but we caused a huge amount of disruption to the killing machine in the field. We will accept de facto or real partition of Kosovo. And I don't believe the Russians would want it either. Partition, as a method of solving ethnic problems, is not in the Russian self interest and I believe we'll get a solution that is not based on partition.

In terms of the third question about trusting the Russians. Well I'd like to take the opportunity of congratulating the Russians. Mr Ivanov, Mr Chernomyrdin and President Yeltsin for what they did to bring about the end to this conflict and to bring about a peace because the G8 - the G8 policy was determined by the Russians with others, the Security Council resolution was only achieved because Mr Ivanov was involved and, of course, your president - President Ahtisaari - with Mr Chernomyrdin did much to get Milosevic to sign up to what was the defeat and the final agreement. So the Russians have played well with us just now and they are, as they were involved in ending the fighting, are involved too in building the peace just as they've done so successfully in Bosnia.

Secretary of state we now have on the line from Finland a refugee from Kosovo - a 16-year-old - living in a camp in Finland holding 250 refugees. Liridon Latifi in Finland please put your question to George Robertson.

Liridon Latifi:
Hello. At first I would like to thank all the states which helped and supported us and a special thanks goes to General Mike Jackson and all the Nato troops wherever they are now in Kosovo. And my question is when will I be able to go back in my country and to have safety there? Thank you.

Well I'm very grateful for your thanks and I'm sitting here on a platform that we've occupied for these last 12 weeks - morning after morning - giving a message of the strength and determination of the alliance and I know that, for many people like yourself inside Kosovo who had access to satellite televisions and who saw us on BBC World and many did as well as the other networks, we gave strength because we had strength and determination. So I'm glad that you are now free. And the answer to your question is I hope very soon indeed. When the Serbs troops have all pulled out and that should be a week from today then the K-For troops can get to terms with some of the problems that will be facing the civil population - landmines, unexploded bombs - all of these things that will have to be dealt with. And then we will have to get those million or so refugees - like yourselves far away from home - back to your homes before the winter comes in. But we made a promise we'd get you back, we'll deliver on that promise I can assure you.

Liridon Latifi in Finland thanks very much indeed - all the best to you. Now we move on Mr Robertson to another caller from Melbourne Australia - Dragana Johnstone. Dragana Johnstone your question for Mr Robertson please.

Dragana Johnstone:
Thank you. Yes I just wanted to ask if an ethnic majority which had lived in a part of England say for a number of generations began asserting itself through a guerrilla army, basically in pursuit of independence, how would you feel about a non ally - such as Russia or China - entering England as a peace keeping force?

Well, just like Donald MacCormick, I'm Scottish and Scotland was once a nation state on its own and it's just been given a lot of new autonomy to make its own decisions inside Scotland, inside the country, quite democratically. And I think you should remember that, of course, Kosovo until 1990 was part of Yugoslavia and had a great deal of autonomy itself. And the rise of the KLA, of the UCK and the Kosovo Liberation Army came from Milosevic's decision to deny any form of autonomy to the people of Kosovo. It was autonomy that people wanted. The right to educate their own children in their own language, in their own country, which they once had and can now have again that caused this problem. He then embarked upon this ethnic cleansing, this wasn't just dealing with a terrorist outfit, dealing with a handful of terrorists, it was cleansing people, murdering people, torturing them, raping them and evicting over a million people from their own homeland. That is why we stepped in and I don't believe that any decent person, anywhere in the world, would have stood back and watched that going on.

Dragana Johnstone was that a satisfactory answer or do you put something - follow up?

Dragana Johnstone:
No that's fine. I mean I was really under the understanding that they did have autonomy.

The autonomy they had was taken away from them in 1990 and the Albanian - the majority Albanian - population, remember 90% of it, was denied civil rights through all of these years and that gave rise to this organisation calling for independence. And the majority of people wanted the autonomy that had been taken away from them. But what it ultimately came down to was a blood bath and we set out to prevent and to reverse that blood bath and that is what we've done.

Dragana Johnstone in Melbourne thanks very much indeed for both of your questions.

Now Mr Robertson we'll move on to a couple of e-mails once again.

First of all from Hans Kujit in Dubai:

"Do you feel responsible for destroying a complete nation by bombing while the use of ground troops sooner would have solved the matter earlier?"

And from Tony Onos in Albacete, Spain:

"Do you think that the delay in invading Kosovo was a grave mistake that Nato made - it should have been earlier?"

I don't believe that by not invading that we caused problems. The circumstances, the geography, of Kosovo, the time it would have taken to assemble the troops - all of that suggested to us it was right to go for an air campaign against military targets and ultimately that proved to be enough to persuade Milosevic to give up and to sign up to what he could have had two and a half months ago. And I'd just like to make one point. It's a very good practical point that's worth thinking about. If we'd tried to assemble a land invasion force that would have taken on all of the Yugoslav forces - 60,000 Yugoslav forces - in March, on March 24th, when we started the air campaign, do you realise it would only now be ready to invade and what would Milosevic have done in the meantime? So those who say we should have invaded or we should have invaded earlier or we should have had ground forces assembled don't recognise the sheer logistic problems of getting them together. Air attacks on military targets have not destroyed Yugoslavia or Kosovo. They were attacks on military targets and the military machine has been severely damaged and will never be rebuilt again and that is a good thing for the Balkans and indeed a good thing for the Serbs as well.

Now another batch of e-mails Mr Robertson about the protection of the Serbs left in Kosovo.

Michael Sam from Maryland in the United States:

"Who's going to protect the Serb minority from the terrorist KLA and possibly ethnic Albanians bound to take revenge."

One from Lima in Peru (Flavio Graf):

"Is Nato preparing some kind of plan to avoid retaliation against Serbs - is there any plan there?"

And Dejan and Marko Dimitrijevic from Yugoslavia say:

"How will you stop the ethnic cleansing of Serbs from Kosovo? Marko and his family left Pristina on Sunday - they would like to go back."

Well I hope they will go back, I hope you will go back if you're watching this programme just now because General Jackson has made it clear and he is a tough, hard, professional man, has made it clear that they will be even handed in what they do. And if you have done nothing, you have not been part of the war crimes that were going on then you are welcome to stay in your homeland just as we are getting back the million or so people who were evicted from their homeland as well.

The United Nations has just appointed the new civilian administrator for Kosovo and he will have to set up a system of law and order, he will have to set up a police force that is based on the population mix in Kosovo and that will give protection to those who want to stay and to rebuild Kosovo as a multi-ethnic community. And the United Nations resolution K-For troops who will be coming from countries all over the world will be there to make sure that the kind of systematic violence, ethnic - ethnic violence of a horror we thought had gone away after the Second World War that that is not revisited against any of the ethnic groups inside Kosovo.

Now secretary of state on the line from Qatar in the Gulf - Robin Mcdonald - who is an ex-pat - British ex-pat - working in the oil industry.

I'm so sorry I've got slightly mixed up there. We now have, sorry, okay. Now secretary of state we have another phone caller who is Duncan O'Ceallaigh from Dusseldorf in Germany. Duncan O'Ceallaigh your question to George Robertson please.

Duncan O'Ceallaigh:
Yes hello Mr Robertson. As you probably know at the end of the Second World War, Germany, Poland and Russia all exchanged each others respective ethnic minorities within realigned borders so ending several centuries of disputes and revolts. A couple of years later in '47 the British also considered that the partition of the Indian sub-continent into Muslim Pakistan and Hindu India was essential to ending the religious strife there. In this light and given the convoluted borders and ethnic make-up of Bosnia and Kosovo why is partitioning and border re-organisation now considered so abhorrent?

Well maybe because we learned the lessons of the post-war legacy because although it may well have been seen to have solved some short term problems about population mixes at the Second World War it was to lead on to huge other problems as well and the division of Europe into a Communist bloc and a Western bloc did not exactly help us and we've had 50 years of the tensions and the waste of the Cold War. And similarly the way in which populations were divided like in Germany produced nothing but damage as well and a collapse of human rights in the Eastern sector. So we're not going to see a re-creation of East and West Europe or East and West Germany inside Kosovo because having learned the lessons of the Cold War we want to re-create ethnic - ethnic communities, multi ethnic communities and there should be no reason why, at the end of the 20th Century, that should be an ambition that we should reject.

Duncan O'Ceallaigh thanks very much indeed for phoning us from Dusseldorf.

Now Mr Robertson a few more e-mails on the looking to the future and the task of reconstruction.

Kaurin Jugoslav says:

"Who's responsible for the war damage in Yugoslavia, who's obliged to rebuild what Nato has destroyed?"

Ranita Ray from India:

"Are you going to help in Serbia's reconstruction having destroyed it? If not will Nato prevent those countries that wish to help Serbia rebuild?"

And one from Hungary (Jovana Samardzic):

"How can you call a war humanitarian when you destroyed the future of 10 million people in Yugoslavia during the 78 days of the bombing and hitting the infrastructure of Serbia and Yugoslavia?"

Well we call it humanitarian because if we had not acted then there wouldn't be any ethnic Albanians left in Kosovo in their own homeland and we would have seen more of these dreadful atrocities that are now coming and emerging into the light of day from the horror of the darkness of the last six or seven months. So we had to stop that both to save the people who were there and indeed, I have to say, to save the people who would then have been dealt with in Vojvodina in northern Serbia - the ethnic Hungarians there - who would almost certainly have been next in the queue for cleansing. The people of Montenegro who have shown the flickerings of democracy that Milosevic so hated and who knows what would have happened to Albania and Macedonia as well. So humanitarian purposes were there. And the fact that we had to use force and use violence was as a direct result of the obstinacy of Milosevic not the evil intent of Nato.

Will we help in the reconstruction and the war damage? Well the war damage is the responsibility of Milosevic. Nothing was attacked that did not need to be attacked. If he had signed up at Rambouillet to terms that were actually better than the terms that he's settled with, with President Ahtisaari and Mr Chernomyrdin then there would have been no damage at all. We only acted because we had to act and because he was using genocidal violence. He is the person responsible for the damage and his should be the job of recreating it if the people of Yugoslavia want him to stay there. But if he stays there, the man who perpetrated that evil in our Continent, then the people of Serbia cannot expect generosity from the world community in recreating their country. If he is gone and a democratic Yugoslavia is there in its place then I would venture to suggest that the international community would want to help all of the people of that country.

Now the Kosovo conflict has obviously got a lot of people thinking about other troubled areas of the world. Let's take a phone call now on that theme from Lois Griffiths phoning from Christchurch in New Zealand. Lois Griffiths your call to George Robertson.

Lois Griffiths:
Yes. I think the West is justified in what it's doing in Europe for moral reasons, taking the moral high ground. But I want to know why has the West been selling arms to Indonesia for so many years now when everyone knows that the Indonesian army is engaged in a brutal occupation of West Papua as well as East Timor?

Thank you.

Well I think the Nato countries have got to make decisions about events that happen in their own area. We can't suddenly become the world's police officer and I think we have to face that fact. This was not just a moral battle although humanity was one of the principle reasons, it was also strategic because if Milosevic had got away with cleansing and killing in Kosovo he would not have stopped with a province in his own country, he would have moved beyond these borders and destabilised the whole of Europe. We, since the Labour government came to power two years ago, have made it clear that we will not sell any weapons that can be used for internal repression or for external aggression and therefore any of the weapons that we sell to Indonesia must conform to these principles and everything that we have sold that has been the subject of contracts that we were responsible for has conformed to these criteria.

Well we heard earlier in the programme about members of the KLA firing on British soldiers in Kosovo. Let's have some of your or a couple of e-mails about the KLA issue.

Rashed (Chowdhury) from Kuwait asks:

"Is the KLA now seen as a partner of Nato's or a menace? Would you like to see it become a political party, a police force or something else?"

And someone (A. Hedge) e-mails us from India saying:

"Will Nato take the responsibility of disarming the KLA?"

Well the KLA have accepted the obligation to demilitarise which is in the Security Council resolution. And all of the KLA leadership who have been playing a very distinguished part in all of this conflict since they signed up to the Rambouillet Agreement which would have led to a peaceful settlement here. That leadership have made it clear that they will conform with the obligations that are laid down there and that the demilitarisation will take place. The question about what role they should play is an interesting one because the Security Council resolution makes it clear that we don't just stop with peace keeping, we're not just in here to stop people fighting with each other, we're here to build a durable peace beyond it and to create a democratic society. So I hope that the KLA and its representatives, the member of them who have appeared on television screens around the world in the last few months, will now get down to the job of creating political parties, civic institutions and get down to creating a normal civic multi-ethnic society inside Kosovo that will allow it to play its part in the wider world.

Now secretary of state just to squeeze in, if we can briefly, a couple of last e-mails.

Arvid Solheim from Norway:

"Is Nato or the UN really ready to spend the next 100 years in Kosovo stopping Albanians and Serbs from tearing each other to pieces?"

And a student from Montenegro says:

"What will Nato do if Milosevic opens new conflict here. I can't release my name" says this student, "because the MUP will arrest me."

Well I think that the time is coming now when the MUP is not going to be arresting anybody. And we're very conscious of how brave the people of Montenegro have been under the leadership of President Djukanovic and if anything was to happen or anything was to threaten the integrity and the democracy of Montenegro then the international community would view that with grave seriousness. You have got a very, very fine leader and he deserves the support of all of his people. I don't believe that it'll take a 100 years to recreate Kosovo. The refugees that I have talked to, the Kosovo Albanians that I know and that I have met want to recreate a society and one that was free from the bitternesses of the past. I believe that that can be done and with the help of the international community will be done. And then our job will be truly over and the fight will have been worth it.

Well that's all we've time for I'm afraid. So George Robertson thanks very much indeed for taking the time to deal with all these questions and thanks, of course, to all of you who joined us by fax or phone or e-mail. In fact we managed to get through only a very small proportion of all your questions today but I hope we've managed, at least, to clarify some of the policy issues and practical problems too facing Nato forces in Kosovo. Problems that look as if they'll be with them and with us for some time to come.

From the Ministry of Defence in London - goodbye.

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