SNP condemns bombing as the suffering grows

A DEFIANT Alex Salmond last night broke ranks with the British political establishment and denounced Nato's bombing of the Serbs, claiming it was only making the Balkans conflict worse.

In doing so, the SNP leader placed the Nato action at the heart of the Scottish election campaign.

He was immediately accused by Foreign Secretary Robin Cook of supporting Slobodan Milosevic and being ''the toast of Belgrade''.

Prime Minister Tony Blair said Mr Salmond's comments were ''shameless'' and ''totally unprincipled''. Other political opponents in Scotland joined the attack, labelling him as ''naive'' and ''insensitive''.

In a televised response to Mr Blair and the other UK party leaders, but screened only in Scotland, Mr Salmond argued that Nato had ''consolidated the position of Milosevic and further jeopardised the position of the Kosovo Albanians''.

An SNP spokesman said Mr Salmond had not been afraid to defy the London party consensus on the controversial bombing of Iraq, and to reflect the views of many concerned people across Britain.

''He is in effect asking what happens when the bombing stops,'' the spokesman said. ''At least, Alex is setting out an alternative strategy and looking for a sensible and alternative way forward.''

Mr Salmond used his rare access to equal television time with rival party leaders to suggest politicians should not pursue a misguided policy and then ask our servicemen to implement it.

''Few people are in any doubt that President Milosevic bears the prime responsibility for the human tragedy in the Balkans. He and his supporters have subjected innocent civilians to daily assault, indignity and murder.

''However, if we are to sanction intervention in Serbia, then the policy must be capable of achieving two things. It must be capable of weakening Milosevic, and helping Kosovo. A bombing campaign will achieve neither. Indeed, the chances are that it will make both worse,'' he argued.

''In virtually every country which has been blitzed this century, the reaction has been to steel the resolve of the civilian population. This is what happened in London in the Second World War. It is also what happened in Clydebank. Why should we believe that there will not be the same reaction in Serbia?''

He quoted BBC correspondent John Simpson reporting that the bombing campaign had silenced the Serbian opposition to Milosevic, and added: ''Nor has the bombing campaign helped the people of Kosovo.

''The atrocities against them have intensified. The Prime Minister claims this is nothing to do with the Nato action. Does anyone at all take that opinion seriously? General Sir Michael Rose, who commanded the UN forces in Bosnia, certainly does not.

''Thus far the Nato action has consolidated the position of Milosevic, and further jeopardised the position of the Kosovo Albanians. It must be of little consolation to those being driven from their homes, or worse, to know that the campaign in the skies above is actually meant to be for their benefit.''

Mr Salmond admitted there were no easy answers as an alternative to ''the present misguided campaign''.

But he suggested: ''We could expend the billions of dollars currently being flung at Serbia in high explosives on stepping up our humanitarian efforts to help Kosovo. We could turn what has been a partially effective arms embargo into a full scale economic blockade of Serbia, until her leadership comes to their senses in the treatment of the people of Kosovo.''

Mr Salmond's remarks were met with a ferocious, three-pronged Labour onslaught. Mr Blair, at Hillsborough Castle, near Belfast, said: ''I think it's pretty shameless. At least Tony Benn has an honest position, which is to oppose the action in Kosovo altogether.

''But what is totally unprincipled is to say you support stopping Milosevic, but that it can be done somehow by economic sanctions. There is no earthly way that we can stop Milosevic through economic sanctions, and if we're not prepared to use military action, then the alternative is doing absolutely nothing.''

Mr Cook said: ''Alex Salmond will be the toast of Belgrade tonight. To stand aside from Nato and put himself as the only European leader to stand side by side with Milosevic shows he is simply unfit to lead.

''He is isolated in his view and a Scotland led by him would be isolated. To compare the effect of the Allied action in Serbia with the blitz of London and Clydebank by the Luftwaffe in the Second World War will be deeply offensive not only to service personnel and their families but also to millions of British citizens.''

Defence Secretary George Robertson added: ''In the face of genocide taking place in Kosovo, to reject military action and rely on nothing more than economic sanctions is simply not credible and utterly naive.To go on to suggest that Nato is somehow responsible for Serb atrocities is beyond belief.''

Jim Wallace, leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, said: ''Given Milosevic's record, Alex Salmond is being incredibly naive if he thinks that Milosevic would have given up his barbarous pursuit of the Kosovars whilst waiting for sanctions to bite. There is no alternative to the current action.''

Scottish Tory chairman Raymond Robertson said: ''Most Scots will find the SNP leader's comments insensitive and offensive and a clear warning he must never be allowed to lead Scotland.''

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