Britain boosts Bosnia forces

Major recalls MPs after 33 troops seized
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in Sarajevo


The Government last night ordered the recall of Parliament and the reinforcement of Britain's forces in Bosnia in response to the Bosnian Serbs' seizure at gunpoint of 33 British soldiers for use as "human shields" against Nato air strikes.

In the first recall of Parliament since the Gulf war, MPs will be summoned to the Commons from their Whitsun recess on Wednesday. The extra men, weapons and equipment to be sent to the region will greatly enhance the British force's capability.

A Downing Street statement, made after John Major and senior ministers spent more than two hours in crisis talks, pledged the despatch of two artillery batteries and an armoured engineer squadron to Bosnia "as soon as possible".

The 33 Royal Welch Fusiliers taken hostage by the Bosnian Serbs yesterday were manning posts along the front line of the government-held enclave of Gorazde, in eastern Bosnia. The Serbs approached four observation posts and two check-points, pointed guns at the peace-keepers, disarmed them and took them away to Ustipraca, east of Gorazde. Soldiers at three other posts escaped, but the fate of a fourth patrol is unknown.

There were reports last night that Nato special forces were considering ways of rescuing the hostages.

Last night's Downing Street statement denounced the hostage-taking - the Serbs are now holding more than 300 UN peace-keepers and military observers - as "without a shred of justification ... It is an outrageous action against peace-keepers which the British Government utterly condemns."

It went on to warn that "the consequences will be very severe if these soldiers are not released unharmed".

The reinforcements to the 3,500 British troops in Bosnia consist of two batteries of the Royal Artillery - 16 guns manned by about 300 men - and a 200-strong Royal Engineer squadron.

The 24th Air Mobile Brigade, based in North Yorkshire, has also been placed on standby, although it is not clear whether the entire brigade of 5,000 men will be deployed. The brigade is ideally suited for quick insertion against an enemy equipped with heavy weapons.

The Downing Street statement added that the additional deployments would form part of a wider strategy of concentrating UN forces. The initiatives follow Mr Major's telephone conversation with President Bill Clinton yesterday, when they specifically discussed ways of strengthening the protection force, and a further call today to France's President, Jacques Chirac.

In Bosnia, the British commander ordered all other troops to return to base in Gorazde, a UN-declared "safe area", for fear of a wider Serb attack. In the case of the fusiliers, "the observation posts were not properly defended because the Serbs did not give us a chance to bring the stuff in", Alex Ivanko, a UN spokesman in Sarajevo, said yesterday.

Lieutenant-General Rupert Smith, the British UN commander in Bosnia, held a telephone conversation yesterday with General Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb commander, who threatened British troops in Gorazde if the UN did not release four Serb soldiers captured on Saturday. General Mladic's 6pm deadline passed with no apparent result, while the Serbs remain in French hands.

The Britons join 171 peace-keepers, mostly French and Ukrainian, disarmed at weapons collection sites around Sarajevo, 32 unarmed military observers held hostage by the Serbs and another 146 UN troops surrounded by Serb soldiers, backed by tanks.

Bosnia crisis, pages 2, 3

Leading article, page 14