Britain takes lead in threat of air strikes in Bosnia

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The Independent Online
BRITAIN yesterday became the first country to threaten the use of air power in Bosnia. The Government offered to provide RAF cover to support 150 Canadian troops surrounded by Serbs in Srebrenica.

If the Canadians, guarding the town on behalf of the United Nations, come under heavy attack, Britain will use whatever force is necessary to help them. Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, revealed the new British position at a meeting of European Community foreign ministers in Denmark.

A few hours earlier, the leader of the Bosnian Serbs, Radovan Karadzic, rejected a new peace plan put forward in Belgrade by Lord Owen, the UN peace envoy. The rejection appeared to increase sharply the chances of Western military intervention in Bosnia.

Sources in Washington have revealed that President Clinton has already decided on air strikes to stop the Serbs advancing in eastern Bosnia. The sources say the adminstration plans an air umbrella to cover Srebrenica, Tuzla and Gorazde. Announcement of the plan has been delayed until this week to avoid giving Russian hardliners, traditional friends of the Serbs, ammunition against President Yeltsin, who faces a referendum today.

The British initiative opens up a much greater range of military options to deter aggression by the Bosnian Serbs, recreating the 'safe haven' approach used in northern Iraq.

Although the ceasefire around Srebrenica is holding, it is 'extremely fragile,' a British official said last night. Britain has carrier and land-based aircraft as well as ground forces in the area.

The Foreign Secretary announced the decision at a meeting in Hindsgavl castle where the 12 EC foreign ministers underlined that no options were ruled out. The EC has been deadlocked on the use of force in Bosnia since the war broke out, but yesterday's discussion showed they were ready to take the next step.

Though officials said the British initiative was not the same as full-scale intervention to force Serbia to accede to Western demands, they conceded that it was a clear threat - 'testing the water' in the words of one official.

The EC is also concerned about the increasingly bloody conflict between Croats and Muslims in Bosnia after last week's gruesome reports of massacres carried out by the Bosnian Croats.

The two side fought each other on several fronts in central Bosnia yesterday. The British UN forces spokesman, Martin Walters, said the fiercest battles were being waged in Kiseljak, 20 kilometres (12 miles) north-east of Sarajevo, and in the Prozor district, 60 kilometres (45 miles) west of the Bosnian capital, where UN troops said that they had seen Muslim villages on fire.

But the ceasefire agreed by Muslim and Croat commanders on Wednesday was 'more or less holding' in the main central Bosnian town of Vitez, except for shooting by snipers from both sides, said Mr Walters. He said a UN Security Council fact-finding mission was expected to arrive in central Bosnia yesterday.

The mainly Muslim Bosnian army said that Bosnian Croat forces were shelling the strategic crossroads town of Jablanica, site of a key hydroelectric plant, and the nearby town of Ostrozac.

(Photograph omitted)