Britain set to break with US over Bosnia: Major ready for air strikes but will veto any move to lift arms embargo

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The Independent Online
BRITAIN is ready to risk a full-scale confrontation with the United States if President Bill Clinton tries to lift the United Nations arms embargo on Bosnia, senior government sources said yesterday. But the Government is prepared to go along with air strikes against Bosnian Serb targets.

In a further symptom of Western disarray, the French government warned yesterday that it would withdraw its 5,500 peace-keeping troops in former Yugoslavia unless UN command procedures were improved.

A leading US politician predicted yesterday that Mr Clinton's agonising over Balkan policy would end - probably next week - in a move to lift the UN ban on arms sales to the Bosnian Muslims. But government sources in London said John Major would be prepared to veto any such move in the UN Security Council.

Bluff or not, the Government will hope that the threat of a British veto will be enough to tilt the debate in Washington away from lifting the arms ban and towards Western air strikes against the Bosnian Serbs. In the face of mounting public pressure for tougher action, the Prime Minister is reconciled to air strikes as the lesser of two evils. Despite repeated government expressions of unease about any escalation of the conflict, Mr Major, Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, and Malcolm Rifkind, Secretary of State for Defence, will tell Cabinet colleagues today that they are prepared to back air strikes, so long as they have a clearly defined military and political objective.

With some Cabinet members unhappy about that, ministers are steeling themselves for a difficult meeting.

Mr Major believes lifting the arms embargo would invite a rush of weaponry to all sides of the conflict. The White House is thought to be leaning the other way, in the face of US opinion polls showing a large majority against direct military involvement.

Dee Dee Myers, the White House spokeswoman, said an announcement of US policy should not now be expected until next week. She said the Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, would, meanwhile, travel to Western Europe and Russia to consult America's allies.

President Clinton reaffirmed yesterday that he believes tough new action must be taken against Serbian aggression. After difficult conversations with congressional leaders on Tuesday night, Mr Clinton said he would decide on a new policy 'and see if I can persuade the Congress and the allies to go along'.

Senator Joe Biden, a leading Democrat, who was among congressional leaders summoned to the White House, said he would 'bet his life' that Mr Clinton would opt for lifting the arms embargo.

Serbs, Muslims and Croats fought battles and skirmishes throughout Bosnia yesterday. British peace-keeping troops based in the town of Vitez in central Bosnia said Muslims and Croats were fighting between Busovaca and Kiseljak north-west of Sarajevo. Muslim-controlled Sarajevo radio reported the shelling of Velika Kladusa in the Bihac area of north- western Bosnia, where the UN Protection Force said about 150 Serbian troops backed by 10 tanks took three villages on Tuesday.

In the midst of the conflict, the UN humanitarian aid effort suffered a number of blows. Bosnian Serbs warned that UN convoys would not be allowed into the east Bosnian Muslim enclave of Gorazde for at least two weeks. At the same time Serbs - disowned by their leadership - in the Bihac pocket, ransacked an aid convoy and stole 20 tonnes of food in Vojnic.

With the UN presence in ex-Yugoslavia in increasing disarray, the French Defence Minister, Francois Leotard, threatened to withdraw his country's troops - the largest single UN contingent.

'If questions as important and as basic as the definition of missions, clarity in the chain of command and adequate financing . . . are not resolved, we will review the presence there of all or part of our forces,' he told the National Assembly in Paris.

In Brussels, Nato officials took the first steps to enforce the tougher sanctions against Serbia that came into effect on Tuesday. They said Nato warships patrolling in the Adriatic could enter Yugoslavia's territorial waters 'in hot pursuit' of suspected sanctions-busting vessels. They were also authorised, as a last resort, to open fire with 'inert munitions' - solid shot, in effect the 20th-century equivalent of cannon balls.