Corruption blow as Nato mobilises

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The Independent Online


Nato's top official, Willy Claes, last night faced the prospect of corruption charges on the eve of the largest operation that the alliance has ever attempted.

President Bill Clinton yesterday begun the arduous task of mobilising the US Congress to support sending the first US ground troops to Bosnia as part of the Peace Implementation Force (PIF), arguing that "as Nato's leader, the US must do its part and send in troops to join those of our allies under Nato command with clear rules of engagement". Washington has pledged to send up to 25,000 troops to Bosnia but the Republican-led Congress has questioned whether the US should risk its forces.

Belgium's highest court yesterday said there are grounds to prosecute Mr Claes for a 1988 corruption case when he was economics minister. The move puts in question Mr Claes's position as Nato secretary-general, and could hardly have come at a worse time. It lays a cloud over the alliance's attempts to put together a peace implementation force for Bosnia, and raises the possibility that its 16 members will have to go through a damaging battle to find a successor.

Last night Mr Claes insisted that he was the right man to lead the alliance at such a critical time in its history. "I am totally innocent, I have never done anything wrong," he said.

He was questioned at length earlier this year over alleged bribes paid in connection with Belgian purchases of Italian helicopters. He has always protested his innocence but the latest revelations put intense pressure on alliance leaders to take decisive action.

Political support for the alliance will be crucial as it moves to implement a peace agreement in Bosnia which may flow from the ceasefire agreed this week. Mr Clinton will have to convince congressional leaders that with the operation under Nato rather than UN control, the lives of US soldiers will be well looked after. "I have pledged to consult with Congress before authorising our participation into such an action. These consultations have already begun. I believe Congress understands the importance of this moment and of American leadership," he said, adding: "If the United States does not lead, the job will not be done."

Britain is expected to offer an armoured brigade of between 5,000 and 7,000 troops, plus large elements of the headquarters forces. Nato sources said Britain will either reinforce the armoured forces already in Bosnia which will remain after the withdrawal of 24 Airmobile Brigade from Croatia, with more armoured infantry and tanks from Germany, or send a new brigade - one of three in Germany. The Nato Allied Rapid Reaction Corps (ARRC) headquarters, to which the British provide the largest component, will run the force, but it will probably be commanded by an American general.

The US Defense Secretary, William Perry, said yesterday that he was confident Nato could complete planning for a peace-keeping force soon. "If the peace talks proceed quickly and get a peace agreement in, say, early November, Nato would have to be prepared to make a very rapid deployment of its forces," he said in an interview with CNN.

Ceasefire countdown, pages 10,11