French want West to break Sarajevo siege

Call to 'punch through' Serb territory
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France wants a powerful new largely Anglo-French task force in Bosnia to punch a corridor through Serb-held territory to lift the three- year-old siege of Sarajevo.

The proposal - amounting to a dramatic escalation of international involvement in the war - will be discussed by the defence ministers of France, Britain, the United States and 11 other countries in Paris tomorrow.

British military planners are sceptical about the idea, which would involve seizing, and holding, a corridor through 10 miles of Serb territory. The timing of such an assault is also unclear, while United Nations hostages remain in Bosnian Serb hands.

But Britain enthusiastically supports the emerging plans for a powerful and mobile Theatre Reserve Force, which would bolster the UN peace-keeping effort, but remain under national, or multi-national, control. French, Dutch and Italian troops would also take part.

President Bill Clinton came under fire in Washington yesterday for opening the door to "temporary" deployment of US ground troops in Bosnia. He faces a battle to win over US public opinion and Congress, where most senior Republicans oppose the plan. But the US marines waiting in a flotilla in the Adriatic are likely to become embroiled only in an emergency, or in a support role.

Apart from relieving Sarajevo, Paris wants the new mobile force - up to 5,000 strong, including 2,000 British troops - to ensure the security of Sarajevo airport. The French Foreign minister, Herve de Charette, also suggested yesterday that it should help to resupply the more far-flung Muslim enclaves, such as Gorazde, where fierce fighting erupted yesterday for a third successive day.

But senior officials made it clear that the safety of the 400 UN hostages remained at the top of the agenda. It is uncertain whether aggressive military action could be contemplated while the captives, including 34 Britons, are in rebel Serb hands. The Bosnian Serb President, Radovan Karadzic, warned in his capital, Pale, that any attempt to release the hostages by force would "end in catastrophe ... It would be a slaughter".

Western governments apparently hope that their ostentatious preparations for tough military action may be enough to cause a change of heart in the rebel Bosnian Serb "republic".

But officials insisted that the planned new force was not just a bluff. It would have the approval of the UN security council. But, like the allied forces in the Gulf War, it would be controlled directly by the national governments involved, not from the UN's New York headquarters.

Senior diplomatic sources say that Britain has delivered a "very specific warning" to the Bosnian Serb leadership on the fate of the hostages. It is understood that contacts to ensure their safety are under way through the International Red Cross and the Greek government.

The Queen visited relatives of some of the British hostages in Pembrokeshire yesterday. In a 15-minute meeting at the Royal Welch Fusiliers married quarters, the Queen, Colonel-in-Chief of the regiment, sat down with five women whose husbands were captured by the Bosnian Serbs last week.

The core of the proposed new Theatre Reserve Force will be three companies of the Devon and Dorset Regiment - the current armoured infantry battalion based in Vitez, central Bosnia, plus the two batteries of the Royal Artillery which are now moving into Split, and the armoured engineer squadron expected on ships in mid-June.

The composition of the force lends credence to French claims that one of its jobs could be to open the road to Sarajevo.

Gorazde fighting, page 10

Clinton under fire, page 11

Leading article, page 18