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1995 - Mr Major’s London Press Conference on Bosnian Situation

Below is the transcript of Mr Major’s press conference in London on Tuesday 30th May 1995 on the subject of Bosnia.


PRIME MINISTER:

All of you of course will know of the decisions that were taken on Sunday night. I should perhaps emphasise, some people perhaps may not have noticed this, that the meeting for Sunday night was of course called some time before the British hostages were taken. There will be an opportunity in the House of Commons tomorrow, in both Houses, for a full debate on the Bosnian situation generally and upon the decisions we took on Sunday night. What I would like to do in the next few minutes is to share with you how the Government intends to handle this difficult moment for our troops in Bosnia.

Let me just say something about those troops at the outset. British people are immensely proud of their Armed Forces and I may address that remark to those of you present here in this conference, but I direct them more to our soldiers, the families and relatives of those who serve in Bosnia, and perhaps particularly to the families of those soldiers who are held hostage at the present moment. At this difficult time it is to them that my thoughts are principally directed.

I sent, as Prime Minister, our troops to Bosnia and I intend to do everything in my power to ensure that our soldiers are released from their present captivity. We have not lightly said that this is a vital national interest. We have sent a letter to Mr Karadzic, the leader of the Bosnian Serbs, that we shall hold him and General Maladic personally responsible for the safety of British troops in Bosnian Serb hands.

We are of course also acting in close concert with our allies and with those governments whose peace-keepers are also being held captive. This new development, this taking hostage of peace-keepers is an outrage, condemned by the whole international community, and rightly so. But not only is it an outrage, it is a self-defeating folly. There can be no possible gain, political or military, from threatening the lives of those who have saved countless lives, of Serb, Croat, Muslim, right across the whole of Bosnia.

So let me say quite clearly to the Bosnian Serbs, this sort of action is the path to total international isolation and permanent pariah status.

In the present circumstances we now have to think coolly and with a clear head about the way forward. In the past few days I have been in close contact with Chancellor Kohl, President Yeltsin, President Chirac, President Clinton and Prime Minister Cretian. My colleagues, the Foreign and Defence Secretaries, have been in equally close touch with their colleagues from NATO and from the Contact Group.

My own view has always been that so long as the United Nations troops, including the British contingent, can carry out their humanitarian mission without unacceptable risk to their lives, then they should continue to carry out that mission. Neither do I agree with those who say that the West has no strategic interest in this conflict. The prevention of a full-scale Balkan war is very much a strategic interest for those of us in the West.

That remains my view. And it is very easy to forget in present circumstances precisely what our troops have achieved. They have stopped the fighting from spreading more widely throughout the Balkans; they have negotiated and upheld ceasefires; they have delivered literally thousand upon thousand of tons of food and medicines to people who would otherwise surely have died; and fighting has stopped in much of Central Bosnia over the last 15 months and that of course is where most of the British troops have been based during this period.

These are achievements that our troops there can rightly be proud of and they are not to be lightly discarded. If the United Nations Protection Forces were to be forced by events to withdraw then the consequences for all the people of Bosnia, and for the wider Balkan region, would be very grave. And it is for that reason that the British Government has never favoured withdrawal.

But plainly we cannot go on as we are. I therefore ask Douglas Hurd and Malcolm Rifkind to pursue with our allies and partners a three-point strategy:

- First, we are strengthening the military muscle of British troops in the Protection Forces. That is why we announced on Sunday night the despatch of two artillery batteries and an armoured engineer squadron to Bosnia, the first contingent will leave today. We are also preparing to deploy 24 Air Mobile Brigade. These deployments serve not one, but two, purposes: they will strengthen the British troops' capacity to defend themselves and they also put in place the kind of reinforcements which would be necessary were a decision taken to withdraw from Bosnia, although I have said withdrawal emphatically is not - not - our objective.

- Secondly, we must look urgently at the mandate and deployment of Protection Forces troops. We are proposing to our partners and allies that there should be a concentration of United Nations forces so as to reduce their vulnerability.

- And third, we have to strain every nerve to achieve a political settlement. Without one there will be, in our judgment, no lasting end to the fighting.

Finally, let me repeat again that we wish to see the United Nations Protection Forces stay in Bosnia, but circumstances could arise where the cost of asking British troops to bear an impossible burden, or to run unacceptable risks, could become too high. I hope that the additional reinforcements will make it possible for UNPROFOR to remain. But if the parties themselves, make that impossible, if they abuse the neutrality, the impartiality and the humanitarian purposes of the United Nations then we and other contributors may find ourselves in the position where there is no viable choice but to bring the Protection Forces home.

Were that to happen, we would all be losers. If UNPROFOR had to pull out, the United Nations would lose, NATO would lose, the European Union would lose and the authority of the international community would lose. But the greatest loss of all I believe would be in former Yugoslavia itself where Serbs, Croats and Muslims would face a future ruled even more by violence and insecurity than they have faced in the last couple of years.

I hope to set out these and other matters in the debate in the House of Commons tomorrow. But for the moment I will be happy to take any questions you may have, and so will the Defence Secretary. Let me say at the outset, there will be some questions I will not wish to answer on this occasion.


QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS

QUESTION (David Rose):

Prime Minister, could you elaborate on what you said about the warning to the leader and military commander of the Bosnian Serbs, that you hold them responsible?

PRIME MINISTER:

There is not a great deal to elaborate upon it, the message is quite, clear and quite unequivocal. British troops are being held. British troops and other United Nations troops, in Bosnia on humanitarian reasons, not party to a conflict, have illegally been taken hostage and held, some of whom have been used as apparent shields against a response by the United Nations Protection Forces. That is illegal. I have made it perfectly clear to the people in command of the troops holding them that the British government will hold them personally responsible for the safety of the British troops. The position is clear and the message passed to them is unequivocal, but I don't wish to add to it.

QUESTION (Sky News):

It would seem that actually getting the forces to the area is becoming increasingly difficult with the threat of Serbian attacks, how are we going to move those troops, is it safe to move them overland or are we going to put them by air where the Serbs have control of the airport?

PRIME MINISTER:

It depends which troops you have in mind. I don't wish to elaborate on precisely how we will move troops for reasons that you touched upon yourself and are self-evident. Suffice to say we are looking at the movement of troops and precisely how they can most favourably and speedily be moved at the moment. As far as the new troops are concerned, some will leave later today, others will leave fairly speedily. And the decision, the preparation, to deploy 14 Air Brigade is proceeding rapidly and they will leave as soon as a firm decision is taken.

QUESTION (George Jones, Daily Telegraph):

Again in your statement you have referred to the real possibility that the British troops and the UN Protection Force may have to withdraw and the troops you are sending there would help in that eventuality. Do you rule out any possibility that British troops and the other UN troops there will actually take a more robust role, that they will actually become involved in making war on the Serbs, because it would seem to me that that is the only thing that they really fear?

PRIME MINISTER:

British troops are not there to declare war on the Serbians. They are there to carry out an humanitarian role and a certain degree of robustness in carrying out that role has always been part of the mandate, and they will carry out whatever instructions the Commanders on the ground think is appropriate to carry out the mandate they have already got.

QUESTION (Financial Times):

Does the fact that you want to concentrate UN troops in a more defensible space in Bosnia mean that we are no longer able to protect some of the outlying safe areas?

PRIME MINISTER:

I don't necessarily know that that is the case. Certainly we are going to have to bring some of the more exposed UNMOs closer in, I think that is self-evident, that has clearly been learned. Beyond that, on this occasion, I don't wish to say any more about the concentration of troops, we are still discussing that with the Commanders on the ground and with our Allies. And at this stage of course there is still the possibility that other countries will also decide to send more troops there as well.

QUESTION (Carol Walker, BBC):

How concerned are you that the Serbs will use this move to send in more troops as a provocation and will instead respond with more aggressive response and create the sort of spiral of violence which you referred to?

PRIME MINISTER:

I think the spiral recently has not come from the Protection Forces but from those fighting on the ground. It was not the Protection Forces that lobbed heavy weapons and heavy artillery into Tusla recently. It was not the Protection Forces that actually took captives, that was the activity of the Serbs. It is not tolerable activity, I have made that perfectly clear. And I think in the interests of safety and for the reasons I have set out I am utterly certain we are right to despatch more troops to General Smith's command in Bosnia.

QUESTION:

Could you say whether the other countries that you have just alluded to might include the US, and also could you clarify the command and control point, will the reinforcing troops be under direct British command or will they also be under UN command?

PRIME MINISTER:

On the latter point, we will reach a final conclusion on that later today, I will be able to tell the House of Commons tomorrow the precise details of the command and control of the new troops and in particular the Air Brigade, when despatched. On the earlier point as to which countries may add troops to it, I cannot tell which countries they may be.

QUESTION:

Prime Minister, you have chosen your words carefully today but hardliners reading this transcript in Pale and elsewhere may say "One last push and these people are going to pull out! They lack the political will and the military capability to enforce their mandate." What can you say today to leave the impression that the other options which exist are seriously still open and may well taken?

PRIME MINISTER:

I have made the point clearly that I do not wish to see the United Nations protection forces leave; I have repeated that until I am blue in the face; I repeat it again. I think the impact of having them there has not only saved a large number of lives through their humanitarian work, I think they have also diminished the fighting; as I indicated, in much of Central Bosnia where British troops have been, fighting has ceased over the last fifteen months. I don't believe that fighting would have ceased but for the presence of the British troops there.

Let me also make the point that if anybody harbours the illusion that if the United Nations protection forces should at some stage be forced to withdraw that the West generally will just be able wash it hands and say: "Well that is the end of it! You can get on entirely on your own!", I think that is an utterly false delusion. There are wider, strategic interests and it certainly would not be the end of the matter if the protection forces were forced to leave; we would still have those wider, strategic interests. No-one need imagine that we can just lightly walk from this and pretend that something of very great importance right on the borders of the European Union isn't of interest to us - it clearly is.

QUESTION:

You seemed to suggest that these extra troops are going to bolster the UN protection force and yet you won't say in answer to Don McIntyre, whose control they will be under. Are you trying to confuse us or the Bosnian Serbs, please?

PRIME MINISTER:

No. I shall be confusing no-one by tomorrow. We are still discussing the precise details of the command and control of 24 Air Brigade when they get there and as I indicated a moment ago I will make the decision clear to the House of Commons tomorrow but there are some very practical and detailed matters to be considered, they are under active discussion at the moment.

SIMON WALTERS (THE SUN):

Prime Minister, you say that the troops will stay there until you think the risk is unacceptable. Do you not think that the mood in this country is that the risk to our troops is now unacceptable and that for that reason they should be brought home immediately

PRIME MINISTER:

I don't believe that is the mood of the country, no, Simon, not remotely and I recall very well the mood of this country a couple of years when it looked as though we might see genocide on a very wide scale in Bosnia; I remember the immensely warm and concerned reaction when so many of the Bosnian children who were hurt needed treatment.

I don't think the British nation would wish lightly that British troops and United Nations troops should turn their back on Bosnia and open up the dangers of what might then happen in the enclaves and don't be in any doubt about what might happen if United Nations protection forces came out, in the interregnum before anything materially happened, there may well be great trouble in the enclaves. The Serbs would certainly be able to take the enclaves and I don't know whether you or anyone else can tell me quite how many people then would be killed. I don't think that is a matter of no concern to us, I believe it is of concern to us.

You have seen what has happened in Central Bosnia, I have just set that out. British troops have been in Central Bosnia for the last fifteen months and the fighting in Central Bosnia has all but died away. Once we move away, the danger of a full-scale attack on enclaves is clearly there. If there was a full-scale attack on the enclaves, you would see bloodshed on a scale we have not yet previously seen. I believe we have both a strategic interest in preventing a wider Balkan War - I spelt that out a few minutes ago - and I think we have a humanitarian obligation to try and prevent that sort of bloodshed and it is for those reasons that the United Nations protection forces are there as a whole. I believe it was right to send them, I believe it has been right to keep them there, I believe it is right that they are there now and I believe it is right to keep them there for as long as they can remain there without unacceptable risks to the lives of British and other United Nations soldiers.

QUESTION:

[Inaudible] request to President Clinton to send troops?

PRIME MINISTER:

It wasn't a request, I simply stated that some countries may well send more.

QUESTION:

Prime Minister, given what has happened in the aftermath of the NATO air strikes, does that strategic step still look sensible to you?

PRIME MINISTER:

That is not a matter I am going to discuss on this particular occasion but if you mean do we rule them out for good, the answer is no.

QUESTION:

Prime Minister, what role, if any, are the Americans and Russians playing in the new scenario?

PRIME MINISTER:

I think there is a very substantial role. The Croat Federation in the West was substantially a result of American negotiation. Clearly, the Russians still have more influence than most over the Serbs, certainly in Belgrade and perhaps beyond Belgrade so they have a very substantial role to play and they are playing it and think it is very important they continue to do so.

CHARLES WRIGHT:

Are you satisfied with the response you have had from President Yeltsin so far and given the Russian interests you have mentioned is there more you think they could do?

PRIME MINISTER:

We are in constant touch with the Russians, the Foreign Secretary is meeting Foreign Minister Kozyrev very possibly at this moment, they are certainly meeting today. When I spoke to President Yeltsin from Bonn on Friday of last week, he responded immediately to our concerns about the escalation and I believe took action immediately so I think yes, they do have a role to play.

QUESTION (CH4 NEWS):

Wasn't the determination and the toughness of the Bosnian Serbs underestimated here? Wasn't it always likely that they were going to take hostages? Are you happy that the lessons of previous air strikes were properly learned?

PRIME MINISTER:

I think it is very easy to suddenly say when they have taken hostages that you ought not have had people in exposed positions. It is very easy to say that in retrospect but of course they weren't in exposed positions for no good reason; they were in exposed positions - observation posts for the protection of the towns. The UNMOs were out there for very good strategic reason, brave men doing a job that they believed in for sound reasons for the overall success of the mission so I don't think with hindsight that I would wish to enter any criticism of the Commanders on the ground.

On the general question of air strikes that you raised, of course, when this whole dispute began some three years or so ago, there were some who thought that all the West needed to do or perhaps should do was to lay back and handle the matter with fairly substantial air strikes. I always thought that was unreal and wasn't a proposition that ever commended itself to the British military advice that I had or that I ever thought was remotely likely.

People may say that if you hadn't put troops on the ground, the United Nations personnel on the ground, no hostages could have been taken but I would have thought that civilian hostages put near the sort of targets that might have been attacked from the air would have been just as likely if we had tried just to deal with air attacks, apart from which the prospect of delivering humanitarian aid with air attacks was negligible, there was no prospect of it whatsoever. The prospect of actually ending the conflict from the air was, on the basis of every single piece of military advice I ever had, equally impossible so although some felt two or three years ago that all we had to do was to unleash air attacks from the relative safety of 5,000 feet, that was never a credible posture for the West to entertain, it wasn't then and isn't now.

GEORGE PASKER-WATSON (THE SUN):

How did you feel last night when you saw the footage of the British soldiers who were being paraded on Serbian television? Did you not think it smacked very much of during the Gulf War when Saddam Hussein did the same thing?

PRIME MINISTER:

I think how I felt was expressed very clearly by the message that has been sent to Mr. Karadic and General Mladic; they will be in no doubt about how I felt about it.

KEVIN BROWN (FINANCIAL TIMES):

What did you mean by "straining every nerve to find a political settlement"? Is there some new diplomatic initiative under way which has resulted from the recent crisis?

PRIME MINISTER:

The diplomatic initiatives have continued throughout this whole period; they, frankly, haven't been very successful so far except as far as the Muslim/Croat Federation in the West is concerned. We may be nearer at the moment to Mr. Milosevic recognising Bosnia than we have been at any stage in the past; that would clearly be a significant step forward. We are not yet - let me make that clear and it is by no means certain we will get there in the next day or so but as we speak at least we are a good deal nearer there than we have been at any stage in past. That would be quite a significant step forward and I hope that we will be able to build on that, if it is achieveable, in the next 24 or 48 hours or so.