Britain moves to sideline UN

UK and France seek more control over peace-keeping force as defiant Bosnian Serbs continue to hold 370 troops
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in Brussels

and EMMA DALY in Sarajevo

Britain and France are considering changing the peace-keeping force in Bosnia, making it less dispersed and more heavily armed. The move seems intended to sideline the United Nations, transferring control to the European states that provide the bulk of the peace-keeping troops on the ground.

As Bosnian Serbs continued to defy the world by holding some 370 UN soldiers hostage, the European Union yesterday backed a two-track plan to break the deadlock. It called for a combination of diplomacy and a toughening of the UN force in Bosnia, but the possibility of withdrawal was left in the air.

Douglas Hurd told a press conference after a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels that there needed to be changes."The UN force needs to be less vulnerable," the Foreign Secretary said, adding that meant withdrawing UN forces from Bosnia's more dangerous areas. This would leave some Muslim enclaves, such as the so-called "UN safe areas" of Zepa, Gorazde and Srebrenica" vulnerable to Serb attack.

Nato's second track involves isolating the Bosnian Serbs. To some extent, they have already achieved that goal themselves. "We cannot allow barbaric treatment of the peace-keepers to be tolerated any longer," the Russian Foreign Minister, Andrei Kozyrev, said yesterday.

Mr Hurd said the EU backed an initiative of the five-nation Contact Group - Britain, France, Russia, the US and Germany - to lift sanctions on Serbia if President Slobodan Milosevic agreed to recognise Bosnia. But there were still problems obstructing such a deal, including what would happen if the international community decided it wanted to reapply the sanctions.

"The commanders of Unprofor [United Nations Protection Force] will have a greater force at their disposal," Mr Hurd pledged. But he refused to make clear whether the new British forces would be under UN command, saying only that they would be "available" to Lieutenant-General Rupert Smith, the British commander of UN forces in Bosnia. Britain is sending 1,200 more troops and has placed 5,500 on standby.

Military sources in London said the troops' status had not been finalised, but that they would probably not operate in the white vehicles which have become the hallmark of the UN.

"There is no problem in accommodating the additional forces being offered by Britain," the UN spokesman in Sarajevo, Alexander Ivanko, said yesterday. "Under our current mandate Resolution 836 does provide for this mission to use force."

Accordng to Lt-Colonel Gary Coward, another spokesman, "the initial deployment would be given to the UN" and the fate of 24 Airmobile - on standby - would be discussed. However, UN officals do not know where the Britons would be deployed.

The urgent issue for the UN mission was first what course the major powers wished it to take towards the Bosnian Serbs: escalation or negotiation.

General Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb commander, said he had stopped chaining hostages to potential targets as human shields against Nato air strikes, but he warned soldiers would continue to be exposed at sites until the UN backed down.

Last night, Contact Group foreign ministers were discussing the crisis, and there will be consultations when Nato foreign ministers meet today in the Netherlands. In London, there a Commons emergency debate tomorrow is likely to see the government decision to send more troops welcomed on both sides of the House, but for different reasons. Influential Tory backbenchers endorsed the move yesterday as a preparation for eventual withdrawal.

Malcolm Rifkind, Secretary of State for Defence, performed a careful balancing act, saying: "We have no intention of launching a war in Bosnia. We are not fighting a war but the protection of our own forces is a crucial requirement."

Tony Blair, the Labour leader, is expected to offer the Prime Minister his general support. But Robin Cook, Labour's foreign affairs spokesman, writing in today's Independent, insists Britain must not back down in confrontation with the Serbs.

Bosnia crisis, pages 2, 3

Robin Cook;

Andrew Marr, page 15