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House of Commons

Monday 8 October 2001

The House met at Six o'clock, notice having been given by Mr. Speaker, pursuant to Standing Order No. 13 (Earlier meeting of House in certain circumstances).


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Coalition against International Terrorism

6 pm

The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair): Mr. Speaker, thank you for agreeing to the third recall of Parliament since 11 September.

At 5.30 pm British time yesterday, a series of air and cruise missile attacks began on the terrorist camps of Osama bin Laden and the military installations of the Taliban regime. These were carried out by American and British armed forces with the support of other allies. There were 30 targets. Twenty-three were outside the main cities, three were in Kabul and four were in the vicinity of other large settlements. In all cases, the utmost care was taken to avoid civilian casualties. British forces were engaged in this action through the use of submarine-launched Tomahawk missiles fired against terrorist training facilities.

It is too early to report back fully on the effect of last night's action. However, we can say that initial indications are that the coalition operations were successful in achieving their objective of destroying and degrading elements of the al-Qaeda terrorist facilities and the Taliban military apparatus that protects them. These operations will continue, and I can tell the House that a second wave of attacks is now under way. In time, they will be supported by other actions, again carefully targeted on the military network of the enemy.

We took almost four weeks after 11 September to act. I pay tribute to President Bush's statesmanship in having the patience to wait. That was for three reasons. First, we had to establish who was responsible. Once it was clear that the al-Qaeda network planned and perpetrated the attacks, we then wanted to give the Taliban regime time to decide their own position: would they shield bin Laden or yield him up? It was only fair to give them an ultimatum and time to respond. But it is now clear that they have chosen to side with terrorism.

But thirdly, we wanted time to make sure that the targets for any action minimised the possibility of civilian casualties. Our argument is not with the Afghan people. They are victims of the Taliban regime. They live in poverty, repressed viciously, women denied even the most basic human rights, and subject to a crude form of theocratic dictatorship that is as cruel as it is arbitrary.

We are doing all we can to limit the effect of our action on ordinary Afghans. I repeat: we will not walk away from them once the conflict ends, as has happened in the

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past. We will stand by them and help them to a better, more stable future under a broad-based Government involving all the different ethnic groupings. That is our commitment to the people of Afghanistan.

The strength of the coalition remains. In addition to Britain, France, Germany, Australia and Canada have all pledged military support. We should also remember the contribution that Germany is already making, under Chancellor Schroder, by taking over the leadership of the NATO mission in Macedonia, and thus freeing up other allied resources for use in Afghanistan. I spoke to Prime Minister Aznar of Spain last night. He pledged his full commitment and indicated his readiness to provide military support. We greatly value and welcome the Spanish support, as we do that of Italy. And of course NATO is giving its full support. Today the North Atlantic Council agreed the redeployment of five AWACS aircraft to free up United States assets so that they can participate in this operation. We anticipate that NATO will shortly agree the redeployment of standing naval forces on the same basis.

The European Union is fully supportive. Russia has issued a strong statement calling for decisive action against the evil of terrorism. China has encouraged efforts to combat terrorism, calling for military strikes to be targeted at specific objectives. The Japanese Prime Minister and Government have given their full support.

President Musharraf of Pakistan has described the military strikes as

Pakistan is providing help in terms of intelligence, logistic support and airspace.

On Saturday, I met Prime Minister Vajpayee of India, who assured me of the Indian Government's robust support for efforts to combat international terrorism.

In the Arab world there has been widespread condemnation of the 11 September atrocities and acceptance of the need to take action against the al-Qaeda network.

Of course, al-Qaeda and the Taliban regime will be eager to spread false propaganda. Already, their lie machine is putting out false claims about the US planes being shot down. There will be much more of that kind of thing. And of course they lie about our motivation. We know their aim. It is to foment conflict between Islam and the west; it is to present themselves as champions of the Muslim world against the United States of America. It is to say that we are anti-Islam. That is a lie. Let us expose it once and for all. We are in conflict with Osama bin Laden and the Taliban regime because the terrorists killed thousands of innocent people, including hundreds of Muslims and women and children; and because the Taliban regime, in return for financial and other support, give them succour.

Forgive me for repeating this, but my visit to Pakistan convinced me that these sentiments cannot be repeated too often. To kill as those terrorists did is utterly foreign to all the teachings of the Koran, and to justify it by saying that such murder of the innocent is doing the will of God is to defame the good name of Islam. That is why Muslims the world over have been appalled by this act. That was made clear to me once more at my meeting earlier today with leaders of all the religious faiths, including Muslims, in Britain.

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As for those who doubted bin Laden's wickedness or his murderous intent, I ask them to listen to his television broadcast yesterday. He said:

Sitting next to him was Ayman al-Zawahiri, leader of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, who themselves were involved in al-Qaeda's attacks, in 1998, on the US embassies in east Africa.

I also remind people of this. In 1999, when hundreds of thousands of Muslims were subject to ethnic cleansing by the hated Milosevic regime in Kosovo, we took military action in Serbia against Milosevic. We were not acting then against Milosevic because Serbia is an Orthodox Christian country, or in favour of the Kosovars because so many of them are Muslims. We acted against Milosevic because what he was doing—the humanitarian catastrophe that he was inflicting on them—was unjust. We helped the Kosovars because they were victims of his injustice.

It is justice too that makes our coalition as important on the humanitarian side as on the military side. We have established an effective coalition to deal with the humanitarian crisis in the region, which of course existed before 11 September. Our priority has been to re-establish food supply routes into Afghanistan. Some 5,000 tonnes of food went in during the last fortnight, thanks to the efforts of the United Nations and other international agencies. At the UN meeting in Geneva over the weekend, donors pledged $600 million, including the United Kingdom's own commitment of $55 million. We will do all that we can to help refugees from the Taliban regime. All we ask them to do is not to stop that help getting through to those refugees.

We must safeguard our country too. Our first responsibility is the safety of the public. Since 11 September, every one of our arrangements has been under scrutiny. We have extensive contingency planning in place in Britain. We are doing all that we reasonably can to anticipate the nature of, and thwart, any potential retaliation. As yet there is no specific credible threat that we know of against Britain. However, we would be foolish to be anything other than highly vigilant, although as the experience of the United States shows, that is not an easy task. Contacts between the United Kingdom, United States and other Governments and agencies are good, and expertise and planning are being shared.

I am aware too of the anguish of the families of the aid workers held in Afghanistan, and of the family of the journalist Yvonne Ridley. I can report to the House that Yvonne Ridley has been handed over to Pakistani officials with whom we have been liaising closely since her detention. She has been met by consular staff from the high commission, and she will be taken to Islamabad this evening and accommodated with the high commission. I pay tribute to the tireless work of the British high commission in Islamabad, the Foreign Office and the Pakistani Government in securing her release.

We are in this for the long haul. Even when al-Qaeda is dealt with, the job will not be over. The network of international terrorism is not confined to it. It is essential therefore that we reflect on why it is so necessary that we

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stand with the US and other allies in this fight. The attack was an attack not on the west or the United States alone. It was an attack on civilised values everywhere. It was an attempt to change by terror what the terrorists knew they could not do by reasoned argument. It was an attempt to substitute terrorist atrocity for deliberative policy; to see the world run by the chaos consequent on terrorist outrage, rather than by disciplined and calm debate.

We in Britain have the most direct interest in defeating such terror. It strikes at the heart of what we believe in. We know that, if not stopped, the terrorists will do it again, possibly this time in Britain. We know that it was an attack also on economic confidence, trying to destroy the strength of our economies, and that eradicating this threat is crucial to global economic confidence.

We know that the Taliban regime are largely funded by the drugs trade and that 90 per cent. of the heroin on British streets originates in Afghanistan. We know that the refugee crisis—4.5 million on the move even before 11 September—directly impacts us here.

So this military action we are undertaking is not for a just cause alone, though this cause is just. It is to protect our country, our people, our economy, our way of life. It is not a struggle remote from our everyday British concerns; it touches them intimately.

We did not choose this conflict. We do not go lightly to fight. We are all of us—the nations involved in this action—peaceful peoples who prefer to live in peace, but a desire to live in peace should never be interpreted as weakness by those who attack us. If attacked, we will respond. We will defend ourselves and our very reluctance to use force means that, when we do, we do so with complete determination that we shall prevail.

That is why we were there last night, in action, and why we will be there again, with our allies. It is why we will continue to act with steadfast resolve to see this struggle through to the end and to the victory that would mark the victory not of revenge but of justice over the evil of terrorism.

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