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Thursday, March 25, 1999 Published at 20:11 GMT

UK Politics

MPs split over Nato strikes

Robin Cook opening the Commons debate on Kosovo

Deep divisions, cutting across party lines, over Nato air strikes against Yugoslavia opened up in the Commons during an emergency debate on the Kosovo crisis.

At the close of the debate Labour backbenchers were thwarted from forcing a technical vote on the adjournment of the House in protest at the government's actions.

Kosovo: Special Report
Wide concern at the potential consequences of the military action was not confined to the Labour benches. Some Conservatives also made clear their strong opposition.

The scale of the divisions on all sides of the House could be seen when veteran Labour MP Tony Benn condemned the air strikes, while fellow prominent left-winger Ken Livingstone backed the action.

Former cabinet minister Mr Benn denounced Nato's strikes as a "war of aggression" and mocked government claims that it was being done for "humanitarian purposes".

[ image: Tony Benn condemned the Nato action as a war of aggression]
Tony Benn condemned the Nato action as a war of aggression
But Mr Livingstone compared Serb President Slobodan Milosevic to Adolf Hitler. "The only scandal that still rests on the western governments is that we have not indicted Milosevic for war crimes," he protested.

A number of Tories also had deep misgivings about Nato's use of force. Former defence minister Alan Clark said much of Foreign Secretary Robin Cook's reasoning in justifying the air strikes had been "faulty".

Mr Clark told MPs: "Many British servicemen regard the KLA" - the Kosovo Liberation Army - "as a bunch of thugs deeply involved in the drug trade who are also operating various refugee operations into this country."

He complained there had been a consistent anti-Serb propaganda campaign operating throughout what was essentially a civil war.

Another Tory ex-minister, Edward Leigh, also attacked Nato's action, saying: "We may be unleashing a tiger that we cannot control." Mr Leigh said he had never known a more grave moment in his 16 years as an MP and never known the House so "disunited on the day after we have declared war".

Tory backbencher Bowen Wells declared the Nato action "illegal" and insisted the United Nations was the proper place to negotiate a resolution to the crisis in the region.

Attempt to hold vote blocked

With just two minutes to go in the debate, Mr Benn tried to force a vote on the adjournment of the House in order that he and others could register their protest. But the move was voted down decisively and Defence Secretary George Robertson continued with his wind-up speech.

The debate automatically ran out at the allotted time, with those opposed to the action denied a chance to record their opposition formally through a division.

Opening the emergency debate, Mr Cook had said air strikes against Yugoslavia would continue until Nato had achieved its military objectives.

[ image: Michael Howard:
Michael Howard: "Doubts about the military action must be heard with respect"
He laid the blame for the attacks at the door of President Milosevic.

Mr Cook said it was in the Serb president's power to put a stop to them: "President Milosevic can halt it at any time by signalling that he is willing to pull back his troops, honour the ceasefire he signed in October and accept in principle the Rambouillet peace plan."

Mr Cook said the allied forces had been left with "no other way of preventing the present humanitarian crisis from becoming a catastrophe" than by moving to limit the Serbian government's ability to repress the Kosovar Albanians.

"Not to have acted, when we knew the atrocities that were being committed, would have been to make ourselves complicit in their repression."

Howard: 'A just war'

Shadow Foreign Secretary Michael Howard backed the military action, saying the air strikes met "the requirements of a just war". But he also warned of "anxieties, concerns and doubts in all parts of the House".

[ image: Menzies Campbell: Gave Liberal Democrat backing to the military strikes]
Menzies Campbell: Gave Liberal Democrat backing to the military strikes
For the Liberal Democrats, Menzies Campbell expressed his party's support for the action. "In the comfort of the television studio or the safety of the House of Commons it is all too easy to underestimate the unmitigated horror of modern warfare," he said.

"But it is just as easy to underestimate the suffering of the people of Kosovo shelled out of their homes."

Tory former Defence Secretary Tom King backed the action as the "least worst of the alternatives".

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