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Wednesday, May 5, 1999 Published at 17:29 GMT 18:29 UK

UK Politics

Blair describes Kosovo tragedy

Tony Blair is committed to making Kosovo safe

Tony Blair has reaffirmed his commitment to ending the "ethnic cleansing" in Kosovo and praised the UK Muslim communities' efforts to help the refugees.

Mr Blair became the first serving prime minister to address the British Muslim Council on Wednesday evening.

Kosovo: Special Report
He insisted there would be weakening in the UK's resolve to ensure the Kosovan people can return to their homes once the conflict in the Balkans is over.

"I want to start in the only place I can start - with the terrible tragedy happening in Kosovo," Mr Blair said.

"I was at the border where the refugees were arriving. It was one of the most disturbing, shocking, few hours of my life.

[ image: The prime minister visited refugees in the Balkans earlier this week]
The prime minister visited refugees in the Balkans earlier this week
"What I saw, the stories I heard, were of the most appalling barbarity. I saw thousands of refugees who had been on the move non-stop for a month.

"In 80 degrees of heat they were standing, sweltering in seven or eight layers of clothing - the only way they could transport their possessions. They stood surrounded by piles of rotting rubbish, swirling flies and dust, endless dust.

"But what hits you most is the line upon line of refugees as far as the eye can see - but with the total absence of young men.

"They are the Muslim victims of a terrible crime - a crime that has haunted the 20th century - ethnic cleansing."

The prime minister said these experiences had strengthened his resolve to ensure Nato prevailed and the refugees were allowed to return home under the surveillance of an international military force.

He praised the efforts of charities such as Islamic Relief and Muslim Aid, which have raised more than £2.5m for the refugees.

Labour candidates criticised

[ image:  ]
Mr Blair's speech came after Labour was criticised by some sectors of the Muslim community for the candidates it is putting forward for the Scottish election.

Muslim News editor Ahmed Versi told BBC News Online: "Tony Blair has been telling us on the one hand that Muslims should participate in politics but on the other hand they are not selecting Muslims to be elected as candidates for the Scottish Parliament."

Labour has chosen no Muslim candidates to stand for the party in the constituency section of the elections to the Scottish Parliament, and has only got candidates on the top-up list, he said.

This was little more than "a cosmetic exercise". Mr Versi said the other main parties had done little better.

Mr Blair's speech to the Muslim Council follows a similar meeting with Home Secretary Jack Straw last November.

Last month Tory leader William Hague also voiced his support of the UK's Asian community saying he hoped one of his successors as leader will be Asian.

Secretary General of the Muslim Council, Mr Iqbal Sacranie, used the meeting with the prime minister to highlight a range of issues concerning the 1.5 million Muslim community in the UK.

According to the council, these include as a lack of protection against religious discrimination, a lack of funds for Muslim schools and the need for religious affiliation questions to be included on future censuses.

Mr Sacranie also called on Mr Blair to be "steadfast in his stated resolve to ensure that the displaced Kosovan refugees are able to return to their homes without fear of persecution".

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