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Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, as regards the first question about the three-year period, the framework document, which has been the subject already of so much discussion, provides that the future status of Kosovo would be reviewed under international auspices. That might be through an international conference or there may a number of different ways in which that can be done. To determine at this stage what is meant exactly by the future status of Kosovo would be a mistake. I believe that that is exactly the kind of issue that should be considered in the discussions between representatives of Belgrade and the other individuals whom my right honourable friend met in Skopje over the weekend. I believe that is one of the things that the discussions in Rambouillet should be concentrated upon.

The noble Lord makes the point about possible elections making a difference and the possibility of postponement. I am bound to say to the noble Lord that I believe that not only my right honourable friend but other members of the Contact Group are very well seized of the political situation. There has always been a reason for a little more delay on this matter. The international community is now pretty determined that discussions should go ahead at the weekend. If good and sound reasons arise during the week I am not in a position to judge what might be decided. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, that most of the international commentators and those who know more about the situation than I do recognise that this is a very urgent situation, which needs a very urgent solution.

Lord Craig of Radley: My Lords, the Minister mentioned that Her Majesty's Government and the French would be willing to consider the commitment of ground forces. Can she clear up the position as regards the use of air power? I believe there was some suggestion in the media over the weekend that the Secretary-General of NATO had already been authorised by North Atlantic Council members to undertake air attacks in the event that the Serbians and

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the Kosovans do not come to the negotiating table. Perhaps the noble Baroness can clear up the position in relation to the use of air power.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I refer the noble and gallant Lord to the Statement that I read out on behalf of my right honourable friend a few moments ago. It states that the North Atlantic Council had delegated to its Secretary-General, Javier Solana, authority to order military action in the light of the responses of those parties.

Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede: My Lords, is my noble friend aware that at the Council of Europe held last Thursday I attended a meeting with Mr. Westerdorp, the High Commissioner for Bosnia? He was asked how long he expected the civilian monitors to be in place in Bosnia. He said that it would be for at least a generation. The current cost is at least 1.5 billion dollars a year, which does not include any of the military forces. Does my noble friend agree that, whatever the success of the current initiative, we, through NATO, will be making a substantial commitment to this region for many years to come?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, the cost of peace is never cheap. The fact is that it costs a great deal to keep troops in readiness on the one hand and international monitors on the other; and also, of course, to have an extraction force standing by. The points that my noble friend makes serve only to emphasise the very robust Statement of my right honourable friend, which is that no part of this dreadful situation in Kosovo can be resolved through military action. It has to be resolved through negotiation. That is why my right honourable friend has taken the lead over this issue and why all members of the Contact Group are four square in support that the discussions go ahead in Rambouillet next weekend with maximum participation from those who have the right to speak on behalf of all sides of the people of Kosovo.

Lord Merlyn-Rees: My Lords, the Minister was careful to advise us to concentrate on political negotiations. She is absolutely right about that. But as regards military preparations, military thinking and the involvement of ground forces, I hope that the Government will put into the discussions a warning by way of what happened in Yugoslavia in the last war. The involvement of large numbers of military forces against guerrilla forces did not work at all. We must be extremely careful as to what our ground forces will do in that area, if indeed they go in there.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I very much take to heart what my noble friend said. I do not believe that anything I have said on behalf of my right honourable friend implies that there will be a situation in which large numbers of Her Majesty's Government's forces would be involved in fighting their way into Kosovo. That is not a point in question here. I stress to my noble friend the point which I made to my noble friend Lord Ponsonby a moment or two ago.

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No side--not the combatants on the ground and certainly no forces from outside Kosovo--can resolve the issue through fighting. All that can be achieved will be achieved through negotiations. That is what makes the next few days so crucial. All people of good will--not only in the contact group but also elsewhere--should bring whatever influence they can to bear upon the combatants to meet in Rambouillet; to sit round the table; and to discuss a way through this dreadful and appalling conflict.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, in answer to previous questions, the noble Baroness was careful in her use of words. I believe that she was making the point that the United Kingdom and France would consider using ground troops if that were requested. What is the American position?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I hope that I am always careful in my use of words, particularly when such serious matters are at stake. I was repeating what my right honourable friend said about the Prime Minister's discussions on Kosovo with President Chirac during last Thursday's visit. Both Britain and France agreed that they would be willing to consider deployment with their allies of ground troops in Kosovo in order to provide a period of stability and peace during which a political settlement could take root. It is the whole context of those remarks which is so important.

As far as I know, our allies, the United States, are still considering the matter.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, will the Minister confirm that, if it is necessary to have a deployment of ground troops, which clearly must be a combined force from a substantial number of countries, to provide a period of stability and peace, that may well be a lengthy engagement? We must recognise that that is the sort of commitment into which we and others may be entering.

Will the Minister say a little more about the situation in northern Albania and the control of the Albanian border? As we understand it, one of the problems that has led to the recent fighting in Kosovo is the provision of heavy and advanced weaponry across the Albanian border and the state of disorder in northern Albania. If we are to impose sanctions on all the participants, is that not something which the western allies will have to take on board rather more firmly?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, the noble Lord says that a lengthy engagement may be involved. Until we get people together round a table to discuss the way forward, it is extremely difficult to judge for how long such a deployment would be necessary. Will it be for the three-year period that is being discussed at present? Quite honestly, that is not a question which can be answered at the moment. If we reach that situation, the allies will have to monitor the position closely, in the same way as we shall monitor the need to keep the OSCE monitors on the ground.

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While I understand the noble Lord's question and what motivates it, it is virtually impossible to answer at the moment. If we do put in ground troops, we shall not do that with a view to taking them away the following week. There would have to be a clear commitment to sustain them for the period which they were needed.

The noble Lord asked some detailed questions on the situation in northern Albania. I shall have to write to him with details about the position there. The noble Lord referred to heavy weaponry. I do not wish to give an answer from the Dispatch Box which I have to correct in writing tomorrow. Therefore, I shall write to the noble Lord and, as I imagine that many noble Lords will be interested, I shall place a copy of the letter in the Library of the House.

Lord Beloff: My Lords, can the contact group be summoned again at short notice? There appears to be a probability, or at least a possibility, that President Milosevic will not say yes or no--he rarely says yes or no--but will suggest an alternative framework for negotiation. According to some press reports, he may suggest looking again at the decisions which have been taken in relation to Bosnia. If some proposals come from President Milosevic, is it possible for the contact group to consider them almost immediately or is it wholly bound by the timetable which the Minister indicated to us?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, from this Dispatch Box I should hate to say anything which might give anybody an excuse to think that they could buy more time. As the noble Lord pointed out, President Milosevic has a history of skilfully buying more time when he believes that that is what his interests dictate. The contact group has been fairly clear about that. In the Statement my right honourable friend used the word "summoned". The contact group believes that time has run out. There is a definite date for the meeting in Rambouillet, which is next Saturday. We expect President Milosevic to be there.

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