Luftwaffe set for new Balkans role

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The German government yesterday announced plans to send up to 26 Luftwaffe aircraft, including Tornado jets, and more than 1,000 service personnel to support the new UN Rapid Reaction Force in Bosnia. If the Bundestag approves the proposal on Friday, it will be the first time German forces have been deployed in Europe outside Germany since 1945.

The Defence Secretary, Malcolm Rifkind, said: "This important announcement, subject to Bundestag approval, represents a significant step by the German government towards playing a full part in current UN and Nato operations in the former Yugoslavia. The decision serves to underline the extent of European solidarity and co-operation in Bosnia."

The German constitutional court decided to allow German forces to be used "out of area" in July last year. Some were sent to Somalia, but their deployment close to where they fought in the Second World War would be a historic step. Nevertheless, Chancellor Helmut Kohl must tread carefully. Rudolf Scharping, head of the opposition SPD, opposes the deployment of German troops abroad, and a recent poll showed 55 per cent of the public agree with him.

Announcing the plans to send German aircraft, the Foreign Minister, Klaus Kinkel, said yesterday: "I appeal on behalf of the government to all members of the Bundestag to support this decision."

The Defence Minister, Volker Ruhe, said it was a "moderate mission", designed to support the British, French and Dutch "Schnelle-Eingreiftruppe" - Rapid Reaction Force. German sources said it was specifically for this purpose, and not part of the Nato operation to deny Bosnian airspace to Serbian aircraft. Mr Ruhe said Germany would not send ground troops to an area where Nazi soldiers fought during the Second World War.

If the Bundestag ratifies the decision, eight of the German planes will be ECR Tornados which can confuse and jam hostile radar with electronic counter-measures, "chaff" and flares, and launch anti-radar missiles. They will be accompanied by six Tornado reconnaissance aircraft. Following the shooting down of a US F-16 fighter over Bosnia on 2 June by a Bosnian Serb missile, the ECR Tornados, which is able to locate and destroy radars, could play an important role in preventing further losses.

German sources said the Tornados would probably be based at Piacenza in Italy. Like the Nato planes in Operation Deny Flight, they will be under Nato's Southern European Command, based in Naples.

In addition, 12 C-160 transporters will be based in Germany and used to carry reinforcements to Split, where a German field hospital will be set up.