Officially, the Foreign Office says it has no figures for British mercenaries in the conflict, but sources said concern is mounting that Britons have enlisted on all three sides and could find themselves fighting one another.
Arrangements were being made yesterday to bring home the bodies of Ted Skinner and Derek Arnold, kidnapped, tortured and shot near Travnik after fighting for the Bosnian Muslims. There are fears that their deaths - thought to take the total British dead to five - may be among the first of many.
A Foreign Office spokesman said yesterday the number of Britons serving with the Croats, Serbs and Muslims was 'substantial' but David Lord, editor of Combat and Survival and a former army officer, said the evidence suggested 'thousands'.
'The amount of mail I am receiving from British men fighting in the area is astonishing,' he said. 'Our correspondents have found large groups of men fighting in Royal Marine and Parachute Regiment berets. They have also found members of the TA, soldiers who are absent without leave and large numbers of untrained idiots and psychopaths.
'Usually when you get a war, it is comfortably far away, but this is on the doorstep, it is easy to get to and it has attracted a very large idiot element who don't know what they are letting themselves in for.'
One Whitehall source said the figure of thousands 'could well be right. We know that most of the British have signed up with the Croatians, who have very quickly set up a large and complicated army with tanks and artillery. They got some men from the Yugoslavian army but they have had to use a lot of expertise from outside.
'They value soldiers with experience in Northern Ireland and so they have attracted a lot of ex- servicemen. There are also some fighting with the Muslims and a few with the Serbs.'
The source said ministers have been perturbed by the exodus towards the conflict, but no restrictions could be imposed on people leaving Britian. 'The law forbids advertising for mercenaries in this country, but that has not been necessary because of the publicity the conflict has received,' he said.
Reports flooded in yesterday of other Britons - even schoolboys - who had taken up arms. Few are paid more than a few dollars a month. One of them, Bob Stephenson, a former serviceman who was wounded fighting in Bosnia last year, said he had been asked by a Bosnian officer to put together a squad of former soldiers to return to the country. They were arrested in Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, on 24 January before fleeing home.
He said: 'I now really fear for the UN forces over there, and for the mercenaries even more. A lot of people, British people, are going to die.'
Details emerged yesterday of Ted Skinner, 38, one of the two mercenaries who were killed last week, but it is understood the Foreign Office has failed to trace any relatives of Derek Arnold. Both men were kidnapped from their flat near Travnik, six miles west of the British UN force's base in Vitez. They were bound, tortured and shot in the head.
Reports yesterday said they had given the British forces intelligence about Muslim operations in which they were involved, something to which Mujahedin mercenaries fighting alongside them might have taken exception.
In an interview last year, Ted Skinner, of Chester, who claimed to have served with the Australian and British armies for 15 years, said he was fighting to support the Bosnian people - earning only a few pounds a week.
Explaining his involvement in the conflict, Skinner said in television interview screened by ITN last night: 'Bosnia is a small country being kicked over by everybody. It's being attacked, invaded, its people are being pushed out of their houses, they're being systematically killed and it needs help.'
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