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Mr. Blizzard: In light of that detail, does my right hon. Friend share my concern that the media sometimes reduce such facts to a shorthand version of "Kabul was pounded tonight", which is different from what he has outlined?
Mr. Hoon: That is right. We all understand why those accounts appear in our newspapers. They are graphic details of what are often complex military operations involving a range of different aircraft and weapons.
We have not yet achieved all our objectives. We certainly believe that al-Qaeda's capacity to train terrorists has been hit, and hit very hard. We have attacked nine of its camps. Many of them have been put beyond use; others have been very badly damaged.
Real damage has been done to elements of the Taliban regime's military capability. That is essential if we are to end their support for Osama bin Laden and the al-Qaeda network. The Taliban's military command and control facilities have been hit, their early warning and air defence systems lie in ruins, radars have been destroyed, surface-to-air missile sites have been smashed. Their ability to sustain their forces effectively has, we believe, been very severely degraded.
Mr. Jenkin: Will the right hon. Gentleman comment on the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) and I raised: the campaign is very much less intensive than that undertaken in Kosovo? To echo the point made by the hon. Member for Waveney (Mr. Blizzard), very large areas of Afghanistan will remain unaware of any military actionunlike what happened in Kosovo. We can therefore emphasise how surgically directed the campaign is.
Mr. Hoon: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. As I said, in the first 10 days of the Kosovo campaign, notwithstanding some pretty poor weather conditions, more than twice as many targets were attacked as in the campaign in Afghanistan. The hon. Gentleman is right that, what evidence there is about the situation on the ground in Afghanistan suggests that life is going on comparatively normally. I very recently saw some footage on public television of the day after the pounding that our newspapers allege Kabul has been given, in which market stalls in the centre of the city were selling food, clothing and other items which they presumably sell routinely, day in and day out. That would tend to suggest that the targets that have been attacked have been attacked very precisely and strategically, and have not caused the kind of damage to the civilian population that some, even in these debates, have suggested.
Mr. Galloway: How surgical a weapon is the B52? Which weapons hit the Red Cross building today, killed the four United Nations workers on the first day and hit the village of Khorum, which the British and western media filmed the other day?
Mr. Tom Levitt (High Peak): Will my right hon. Friend address the concerns that one or two of my constituents have expressed to me about the dropping of food to people in Afghanistan? Will he confirm that the areas where food is being dropped are not also the places that are being bombed?
Mr. Hoon: That is so, although we all recognise that more work must be done to ensure that humanitarian aid reaches the areas where it is most needed. The United States has deployed a number of transport aircraft to drop food packages mainly where we know that there are significant numbers of refugees who had intended to cross what is now a closed border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. As I said at the start of my comments, the more information we are able to glean from photo-reconnaissance, the more we shall be able to target humanitarian aid accurately where it is most needed.
We have gone a long way towards creating the right conditions for future operations in Afghanistan, to maintain the pressure on the Taliban regime. We have attacked nine airfields. The vast majority have had their operational capability degraded or destroyed. The bulk of the Taliban's limited air forceits fighters, helicopters, and transport aircrafthave been reduced to wreckage. The threat posed by the Taliban air force is now negligible. Certainly, we have achieved air supremacy at medium and high levels over Afghanistan.
Yet we know that camps can be rebuilt, radars replaced and runways repaired. We must ensure that terrorists cannot use them again and that coalition forces can operate with the greatest possible freedom and safety. Repeated strikes on the same targets are therefore sometimes necessary. That does not indicate failure, but shows how thorough and determined we are in achieving our objectives.
I realise that there are concerns about the targets of the air strikes. I emphasise again that our targets are terrorist and military installations. The targeting processes are rigorous, involving the Law Officerswhich answers the point raised again by my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow. A great deal of effort is spent on both sides of the Atlantic examining the targets carefully to ensure that we minimise as far as possible any risk of civilian casualties.
Syd Rapson (Portsmouth, North): Is there hard evidence that the Taliban are collecting civilians to pack around potential target sites and so give rise to bad press coverage, or that they are using Red Cross areas to hide fuel dumps and so on?
Mr. Hoon: I shall deal with the Red Cross point shortly. I have no specific evidence of efforts by the Taliban to use human shields, but I do not entirely trust the efforts that they have so far made to explain to the
I emphasise once again that we have no quarrel whatever with the people of Afghanistan. Enormous efforts are made to minimise civilian casualties and avoid exposing civilians to unnecessary risk. However, as speakers in the debate have rightly observed, the possibility of accidents and errors can never be entirely eliminated. Fortunately such incidents are rare, but there is always the chance that something will go wrong, however much care is taken. I greatly regret the deaths of any civilians who may have been killed in the air strikes, including those of four United Nations workers who died last week.
I am aware of the reports that civilians have been killed in coalition strikes on the village of Khorum. My United States counterpart, Secretary of State for Defence Donald Rumsfeld, explained yesterday that there were good indications that it was a confirmed military target. The chairman of the United States joint chiefs of staff, General Richard Myers, indicated that the actual targets were caves containing military hardware that made them entirely legitimate military targets.
The caves were hit very precisely. We are aware that following the strikes on the caves, serious explosions occurredfar more serious than could have been caused by the weapon that initially struck the caves. That clearly indicated that the caves were being used to store high explosives, weapons and munitions. The consequential series of explosions clearly demonstrated that the caves were a perfectly legitimate and appropriate military target.
Vernon Coaker: It is important that my right hon. Friend gives the true facts about events in Afghanistan. Will he confirm that we are dropping leaflets and that we are continuing to do all we can to use the BBC World Service to broadcast into Afghanistan, so that we can tell the people of Afghanistan about the situation from our perspective and explain our aims and objectives?
Mr. Hoon: I confirm that there have been leaflet drops. I also confirm that excellent work is being done by the World Service. What is most important about the World Service's work is that it operates entirely independently of the Government and explains events in a completely objective way. Those in government who from time to time are criticised by the World Service recognise its independence and objectivity.
Reports and allegations have come in today, including one that five civilians have been killed in a Kabul hospital. All I can say in response to such allegations is that there were no known hospitals close to the sites in Kabul that were targeted by air strikes last night. Immediately on hearing of the allegations, we began investigations, as is standard practice following any suggestion that civilian casualties have occurred.
I shall deal with the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Ms King) about a warehouse used by the International Committee of the Red Cross and suggestions that it had been damaged. Fortunately, it appears that no one has been killed. The Red Cross has confirmed that no food stocks were damaged. The details of the incident are still sketchy and no specific battle damage assessment is yet available, but
I repeat that we will continue to investigate any claims of civilian casualties very carefully. In fact, it is almost impossible to obtain any independent evidence against which we can judge such allegations. So far, only once have the Taliban regime allowed independent journalists into Afghanistan to investigate such claims. From what I have read of their accounts, those journalists were extremely doubtful about the veracity of what they saw; some certainly felt that incidents had been manufactured for their benefit.
On the subject of the media, the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) raised yesterday's meeting between a number of broadcasters and the director of communications and strategy at No. 10 Downing street. I think that I should deal with that, as the hon. Lady specifically raised it. The events of 11 September make these exceptional times. A number of issues have arisen in the last two weeks, including media reporting of the Prime Minister's travel plans, videos of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda members being shown on television, and the Taliban's invitation to selected journalists to visit a village in Afghanistan. It was felt, and the broadcasters agreed, that it would be sensible to sit down and talk those things through. The Government were able to flag up some of their concerns, particularly relating to security issues, which was welcomed by both sides. Let me repeat the Government's appreciation for the way in which the broadcasters have gone about an extraordinarily difficult job in recent weeks.