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Lord Rea: My Lords, perhaps I may make a brief intervention and I thank the Minister for giving way. Will she indicate how considerations relating to a replacement for Flight Sergeant Kelly are going? Why is it that the British are the only members of the assistance group who have not returned its members? Does that not indicate that we are not taking seriously the OSCE assistance group in Bosnia?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey: My Lords, I can assure the House that we are taking the membership of the assistance group extremely seriously. The UK member was withdrawn last year when the security situation deteriorated and when we could no longer rely on the maintenance of the security of that group.

In principle, we are willing to second somebody to the assistance group. That is why we are in close touch with the new Swiss chairman in office, not only on that but on all other aspects of the assistance group's activities which have been referred to this evening. We want to see the OSCE group working to the best possible outcome. The group, under the new Swiss head of mission, Tim Guldimann, has a very important responsibility to get on with this job. He has only just begun. I hope that there will be some further news for the noble Lord before very long. Certainly, the withdrawal of the previous head of mission was unfortunate but it was after a serious and very genuine car accident.

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I assure my noble friend Lord Belhaven and Stenton that I do regard the words of my noble friend Lady Park of Monmouth as very wise. My noble friend Lady Park had a very realistic scepticism about what the Russians are up to. In addition, she asked about the assistance group. It has a very difficult job to do. The first reports from Mr. Guldimann give us some confidence that there will be increased activity, and we must help with that. We are certainly very confident that he will prove an effective leader of the group.

His objective is plainly to be in touch not only with the Russians but also with the Chechens and Mr. Dudayev as well as with the elected leader, Mr. Zavgaev, about whose election I will say little more than that I note the figures. What more can one say? The figures and the non-viable opposition to him speak for themselves.

I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, is right to say that we must do as much as possible to persuade the OSCE to be far more positive. That is why I welcomed very much the appointment of the new Swiss head, who I believe will give fresh inspiration. But let us not in any way expect a miracle because this is one of the most difficult situations to be faced for a very long while.

Lord Hylton: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for giving way. Does she agree that the scale of effort and the scale of operation needed to make any real difference in this situation is far greater than anything else that the OSCE has so far attempted?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey: My Lords, it is extremely difficult to make comparisons. One thinks of all the problems in Azerbaijan and the situation in Stepanakert. I should not like to make comparisons. In some cases the only answer to a continuing conflict is the activities of an OSCE mission. Each mission believes that its difficulties are the greatest. But I agree that this is a difficult problem for the very reasons outlined by my noble friend Lady Park of Monmouth; namely, the whole changing political situation in Moscow and throughout the former Soviet Union.

We have heard President Yeltsin's welcome assurances that he is committed to a negotiated settlement. We know also that he signed up to the ceasefire, which is patently not succeeding at present. But one of the difficulties had been the internal Russian fighting. We must remember that the initial success of the peace negotiations, which were started by Prime Minister Chernomyrdin, were undermined by a series of terrorist attacks on senior Russian figures including Lobov, President Yeltsin's envoy, on General Romanov, the commander of the Russian forces, and on Zavgaev, the leader of the Russian-backed Chechen Government. That is what led the Russians to break off the negotiations and it is why I believe that it will be quite difficult to get them back.

Since that time there has been a steady escalation in violence. We are deeply concerned at the reports that Russian troops have used excessive force, whether in the recapture of Gudermes or in the current fighting. Equally, we are concerned at the reports of excesses by Chechen fighters, and most recently the terrorist actions not only in Kizlyar and Grozny but tonight on board a

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ship in Turkish waters. We appeal for restraint on both sides and for a cessation of the actions which exacerbate the conflict and hinder the search for a negotiated peace. That is of crucial importance.

The concern of many about the OSCE and the assistance group is that they have not yet used their full mandate, which includes the investigation of allegations of human rights abuses and to find a way to resolve the situation. We support them in all that work. They also have a mandate to assist in the holding and monitoring of elections, but I do not believe that that subject will come up again for some time. Your Lordships will remember that we and our European partners raised very severe doubts about the wisdom of holding the elections last December. They did not monitor the elections because of concerns for the safety of the mission, which answers the question asked by my noble friend Lady Park. Now that the OSCE mission is back, it has our full support. I believe that it has a better chance than it had before.

The noble Lord, Lord Rea, my noble friend Lady Park of Monmouth and others asked about the Council of Europe and the possible accession of Russia to the Parliamentary Assembly. There is a meeting on 25 January in Strasbourg. Some argue that the conflict in Chechnya is evidence of Russia's unsuitability for membership. Earlier today I spoke to David Atkinson, a Member in another place. He had himself been involved in the debate a few days ago in another place. On the basis of his experience of the denial of human rights in many parts of Russia, I discussed with him whether he felt that it would be better to have the pressure of the Council of Europe on Russia as a member or to keep Russia out of the Council at the present. I share his view that to bring Russia into the European family of democracies through the Council of Europe will give us an additional opportunity to reinforce the need for respect for human rights, for minorities and for the rule of law. But I believe that this issue will be thoroughly debated in Strasbourg. There are some very strong contrary views. The important point is to improve their behaviour overall as regards human rights.

The security of the OSCE mission has been mentioned on several occasions. I believe that that is paramount. We have to rely on the Russian authorities for the protection of the mission. There are Russian guards on their compound. There is no real alternative to that. The situation must be kept under review. Unless there is adequate security, the mission will not be able to do its work. That is a crucial part of the overall problem.

The noble Lord, Lord Kennet, asked me about Chechen weapons, where they came from and who was arming them. He also asked about the pipeline situation in the area. I will give what answers I can provide now, but I may need to write to him with further details when I have had a chance to look a little further into the matter. The evidence we have about the weapons used by the Chechens is that they come mainly from supplies left behind by the Russian forces after Dudayev came to

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power in 1991. There are reports of smuggling from a variety of sources but all in that general area of the world. As far as the pipeline is concerned--

Lord Rea: My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt but I hope I may add a small amount of information on weapons. It was our information that it was quite easy for the Chechens to buy weapons from the Russian forces at quite cheap rates, down to the ridiculous level of getting five boxes of 50 rounds of ammunition or a Kalashnikov for a chicken.

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey: My Lords, the black market works in a black way, and that is the situation that the noble Lord has just described. I am quite certain that whether they bought them from someone who had stolen them or picked them up, acquiring them was not as difficult as even that description might have implied.

As regards the pipeline, I understand that an international consortium, of which British Petroleum is a member, hopes to export most of the early oil from the concession which was signed with Azerbaijan out through that pipeline, but agreement for the use of the pipeline has not yet been signed with Russia and presumably until it is there will be no production going out.

As regards the noble Lord's question about British interests in Chechnya, we hope to see an end to the conflict in Chechnya. I cannot take him any further on his hypothetical question about a federation of Moslem states down the west coast of the Caspian Sea. That is a hypothetical question and I do not have time tonight to debate such interesting issues.

The most important thing I should say to the House is that we are determined to help bring an end to this. We hold no brief for anyone who takes hostages. We understand that there are some real difficulties for the Russian Government, but the reporting to date seems to suggest that excessive force has been used in the attempt to free the hostages, and indeed in the general fighting. We are communicating our concerns to the Russian Government and we shall make sure that we use all the opportunities we have to make those views known but also to try to work out ways in which the situation could be resolved.

I come back to the problem that my noble friend Lord Belhaven and Stenton mentioned. The OSCE principle which works throughout the countries signed up to it is that frontiers are inviolable but they can be changed peacefully and by agreement. The examples of peacefully agreed frontier changes obviously include German unification, the establishment of separate Czech and Slovak republics and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Chechnya is internationally recognised as part of the Russian Federation. That is why we say that we are looking for a solution within the framework of the Russian Federation. Any cessation from membership of the Russian Federation has to be mutually agreed, and it has been a longstanding part not only of British policy but certainly of other OSCE countries too that the right to self-determination does not equate automatically with the right to cessation.

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There may be a way of finding a solution for Chechnya which is known as the Tatarstan solution. That provides for maximum autonomy short of outright independence. I gather that that is negotiable. I hope that that clear message may emerge from the forthcoming debate of the Council of Europe--that it should seek to try to work out a Tatarstan solution.

This has been a valuable debate, as so often in this House, and the experience, knowledge and thoughtful reflection of all of your Lordships have featured in it. I understand the deep concern about the consequences of the continued fighting. We have not lost sight of the suffering which Chechnya's civilian population continues to endure as a result of the conflict. The international agencies have mobilised their resources. They are to be praised for their efforts, so often in dangerous conditions. We were particularly saddened to hear of the tragic death of a Finnish worker and the decision to withdraw international staff temporarily.

We shall maintain our efforts to assist the victims of the conflict. We have already given substantial aid. We wish to see the conflict stopped, not to have to go in and patch up the situation. We have committed nearly

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£2.5 million in bilateral aid and a further £l.8 million as the UK's share of European Union aid. We have given over £500,000 for transport, shelter, food and sanitation projects. We are continuing to look at other projects, and we shall pay special attention to the water needs which were mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Hylton.

Our long-term goal is to see peace. It is clear that the conditions for a settlement acceptable to both sides are still some way off. The search for peace will be hard won, but it is the OSCE which must be the vehicle for re-establishing an element of trust and confidence between the sides. It must encourage contacts at all levels to pave the way for a more substantive and constructive dialogue.

We shall continue to take every opportunity, both bilaterally and with others, to press home the need for the fighting to stop and for negotiations to resume. That is the only way to build a safe future for the Chechen population which expresses their distinct identity within the Russian Federation.

I repeat my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Rea, for giving us the opportunity for this debate at such an opportune time.

        House adjourned at sixteen minutes past eleven o'clock.

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