Britain angry after US denies 'ethnic cleansing'

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The Independent Online

Relations between Britain and the United States over the former Yugoslavia were severely strained last night after the US ambassador to Zagreb dismissed the flight of up to 200,000 Serbs as different from ethnic cleansing.

Peter Galbraith, in a BBC radio interview, said ethnic cleansing was only carried out by Serbs. "Ethnic cleansing is a practice sponsored by the leadership in , carried out by the Bosnian Serbs and also by the Croatian Serbs, of forcibly expelling the local population whether it was Muslim or Croat using terror tactics."

The Secretary of State for Defence, Michael Portillo, said on Monday that the exodus of Serbs from the Krajina, where they lived for centuries, amounted to ethnic cleansing.

Red Cross officials, United Nations representatives and Western diplomats rejected Mr Galbraith's assessment. One ambassador described the remark as "breathtaking".

A United Nations official said that Ukrainian peacekeepers had reported that Bosnian Muslim forces were seen entering six villages where Serb houses were set alight. The peacekeepers heard small arms fire followed by screaming.

A spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Ron Redmond, said "it looks like ... Krajina is being emptied". The political and diplomatic effect of Mr Galbraith's statement was to highlight the gulf between the US and Britain and France over what should happen next in the Balkans. British and French officials are understood to be in urgent consultation over the implications for their peacekeepers of the US support for Croatia and the fact that Nato and the UN are now seen by the Serbs as biased against them.

There is also deep concern in London and Paris over the future use of Nato air power to deter attacks on peacekeepers by any of the factions, Serb, Muslim or Croat. Croatian forces killed three peacekeepers, one a Danish soldier hit with a tank round. Other peacekeepers were used as human shields.

Nato aircraft were not used in support of any of the peacekeepers. In contrast, US warplanes did strike a Krajina Serb missile site when it appeared to target them. In an attempt to patch up the divisions between London and Washington, a UN security council resolution condemning the Croatian offensive in Krajina was being put forward by Britain last night. A draft resolution circulating in New York expressed concern at the resumption of hostilities and "strongly deplored" the Croatian advance.