Camouflage paint blurs British troops' status

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The Independent Online


Defence Correspondent

The first British reinforcements to protect the 3,500 British UN troops in Bosnia - a six-gun battery manned by 200 men of the Royal Artillery - are due to arrive in Split, Croatia, in the next two days. They will go on to central Bosnia, where the UN has asked them to form a quick- reaction reserve.

But the Government yesterday appeared either to be deliberately obscuring their status or to be hopelessly confused. It was unclear whether the reinforcements were to be UN troops or a "UN-blessed" force, supporting a UN mandate but not under UN command.

Another 1,000 troops are to follow, while 5,500 more have received a "warning order".Sources said the third and largest wave of troops probably would be sent, unless the situation improved.

The new force is a double-edged sword. It will provide extra firepower for UN troops if pitched battles break out with the Serbs. It will also be able to assist the UN's withdrawal from isolated enclaves in eastern Bosnia. Because the heavy equipment has to come by sea, most will not arrive for about three weeks.

The confusion over whether the force is under UN or British command reflects uncertainty about the mission's objective. The only thing that seems certain is that the guns and vehicles will not be painted white but, for the first time in the UN's three years in Bosnia, will be camouflaged. As one senior Whitehall source said: "At least they won't be grey". They will be there to support the UN, but, it appears, without the full constraints of UN command.

Army sources said the Government was discussing the precise status of the force with Lieutenant-General Rupert Smith, the British general who commands the UN forces in Bosnia.

British UN troops already report both to the UN and to a British commander. The new force will report directly to General Smith but will have a stronger link with the British national command at Wilton, near Salisbury.

The first troops, a battery of 19 Field Regiment Royal Artillery, based in Colchester, will arrive at Split in the next couple of days, along with six Light Guns. The Light Gun, used in the 1982 Falklands War, can be carried by air and is very accurate. The Dutch UN troops already have Leopard tanks with guns of this calibre, so the arrival of the Light Guns will not increase firepower. But the Bosnian Serbs, who opposed the deployment of the tanks, are likely to take offence, as they are familiar with what artillery can do. The guns will be accompanied by two Lynx helicopters, to add to the four already in the area.

The artillery is likely to be concentrated initially at the British base at Vitez, in central Bosnia. If British troops move into Sarajevo, some will accompany them there. Artillery will give the UN a more surgical response to Serb attacks than air strikes. A second battery, another 200 troops from 19 Field Regiment, and more ammunition, will arrive in about three weeks.

There will be a problem finding space for further reinforcements. The second wave will also include a 350-strong armoured engineer squadron, from 21 and 32 Engineer Regiments, based in Germany. They will operate three Armoured Vehicles, Royal Engineers and three Armoured Vehicle Launched Bridges. The armoured engineers would be crucial to insert or extract British forces in the face of determined opposition.

The third wave would comprise 5,500 troops from 24 Airmobile Brigade, including two infantry battalions - the 1st Battalion, Light Infantry and the Royal Anglian Regiment, and two Army Air Corps regiments to carry them. The two AAC regiments would bring 44 Lynx helicopters, half of them armed with TOW anti-tank missiles, and 24 Gazelles. The brigade also has 10 big Chinook and 10 Puma transport helicopters.