Extra British troops on stand-by for Bosnia

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The Independent Online
THE CABINET is today expected to authorise another battalion of 900 British troops to join the 2,400 already in Bosnia. United Nations commanders have been calling for more resources as the role of the UN shifts from escorting aid to peace-keeping over vast areas.

John Major secured the backing of Cabinet colleagues for more troop deployments, in a change of policy by the Government. A week ago Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, stressed the importance of other countries 'doing their bit' before Britain committed more forces to Bosnia.

It is clear the pressure of armed forces chiefs and Opposition party leaders has helped to force the hand of ministers to do more to try to preserve the outbreak of peace in Bosnia.

The new British battalion, the Duke of Wellington's Regiment - with Saxon wheeled armoured vehicles - is on stand-by and the first troops could be in place within 72 hours of a Cabinet decision.

The Prime Minister said on BBC radio that Britain had sounded out a wide range of countries over the weekend and was confident that others would also send further troops to the region. 'What we are seeking to do is to try and reinforce the UN's own efforts by promoting a coherent, urgent and a positive response to their appeal for more troops,' Mr Major said.

'We anticipate a series of meetings and discussions before the nature of that response is clear . . . to see if we can build on an opportunity that may exist for a wider peace.'

Meanwhile, pressure on the United States to send troops intensified last night. 'They have made contributions in other ways, but it has always been the case that when peace begins to break out . . . the Americans will be ready to put in peace-keeping forces,' said David Howell, Tory chairman of the Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee.

British officials now believe the progress under Lieutenant-General Sir Michael Rose, the British commander of UN forces in Bosnia, may be turning into an overall peace settlement. The situation has changed so rapidly in the past two weeks that 'the military has got ahead of the politics', according to General Sir John Wilsey, the Joint Commander of British operations in former Yugoslavia.

Although the UN's mission remains escorting aid, strategists say it has 'slipped to interposition between conflicting parties - to peace-keeping'. Two ceasefires are in force - between Serbs and Muslims around Sarajevo and between Muslims and Croats in central Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Yesterday, the Joint Commission on the Muslim-Croat ceasefire met under its British chairman, Brigadier John Reith, at Gornji Vakuf and agreed demarcation lines. The two sides signed maps which could become the basis for political borders in a future Croat- Muslim confederation.

In the besieged Muslim enclave of Tuzla, Swedish and Danish UN troops took control of the military airport yesterday in preparation for aid flights for the first time in 23 months of war. The relief flights will supply some 700,000 people, mostly refugees.

The new battalion could be used anywhere in Bosnia-Herzegovina's south-eastern area, where Brigadier Reith commands British, Malaysian, Canadian and Spanish battalions. One possible area is Mostar, where wheeled armoured vehicles have proved suitable because the roads are good.

The most urgent need is for infantry to guard defended sites, freeing the Coldstream Guards in their heavy Warrior vehicles to patrol the 150-mile main ceasefire line between Croats and Muslims and the areas around the two Croat pockets of Kiseljak and Vitez.

The change of policy was welcomed by David Clark, the Labour spokesman on defence. 'I am very glad the Government has finally made up their mind to send the troops. If this peace is going to hold, we need extra troops there.'