British troops in Bosnia will be cut by one-third

BRITISH TROOP strength in Bosnia is to be reduced by one-third as part of a radical overhaul of government policy on the use of the country's forces overseas.

Geoff Hoon, the Secretary of State for Defence, announced the withdrawal yesterday during a visit to the Balkans and voiced his "serious concern" about overstretching the forces. More than 50 per cent of the country's personnel are now engaged outside the British mainland, the highest figure since the Second World War.

Almost continuous engagements in international troublespots such as Bosnia, Kosovo and East Timor had put acute pressure on the domestic lives of service personnel, as well as hindering training and exercises, Mr Hoon said.

The cabinet minister announced that 1,300 troops would be withdrawn from Bosnia next year, reducing the total British contingent to 2,000 by the end of the year 2000. They will be replaced by extra forces being sent from Canada and the Netherlands.

Senior British Army staff believe that while their forces spearheaded emergency operations, some Western allies have been less than enthusiastic in providing back-up, obliging the United Kingdom forces to stay for prolonged periods.

Visiting soldiers in Kosovo, Mr Hoon said: "We have to ensure that we are not asking our people to do too much. There is no doubt we have been operating at the edge. This is going to change things significantly, maintaining our levels of international obligations, but at the same time placing more reasonable demands on our people. The British have been able to go in very quickly [but] we have not always seen people able to come in behind us."

As part of the shake up, Britain has already withdrawn all its troops - around 300 - from East Timor, the Kosovo commitment is being reduced from 5,000 to less than 4,000, and the Falkland Islands garrison is also being cut by 100.

Mr Hoon's move appeared yesterday to win the approval of the soldiers serving in Kosovo. The soldiers of Eight Company, 2nd Battalion, Royal Green Jackets, are currently in Pristina for six months, just after finishing another half-year stint in Bosnia. Lance Corporal Peter Grehan, said: "This is undoubtedly putting pressure on home lives, especially of those married. I think most of us would be very pleased by what the Defence Secretary has announced."

Lance Corporal Richard Savage, 20, of Mansfield, Nottinghamshire, added: "It is pretty remorseless. We were in Bosnia and had a short break and now we are here. We are coping but it will be very difficult to carry on like this for a long time."

The Nato forces in Kosovo, in the meantime, are coming under increasing pressure from lawlessness and a general rise in the level of violence. One officer said: "There is no existing law at present so really there is nothing to enforce. The situation is pretty serious."