Major denounces US Ulster claims

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ON HIS first American visit since Bill Clinton took office, John Major was forced yesterday angrily to denounce allegations in Washington that British security forces are guilty of human rights abuses in Northern Ireland.

As the Prime Minister rebutted the charges, however, President Clinton, standing alongside him a joint White House press conference, confirmed that his administration was concerned about human rights in the province and was still interested in appointing a special envoy to the conflict.

Questions on Northern Ireland partially derailed the Prime Minister's visit, conceived initially as an opportunity for the two leaders to become acquainted and review trade, economic and foreign policy issues, including developments in Bosnia. The President, however, made it plain that he would raise the matter at a dinner last night for Mr Major.

The President also made a humourous reference to the role of the Home Office in searching his personal files during the election campaign for information about his time as an Oxford Rhodes Scholar. 'I'm just glad that I got through the campaign with most of my life in Britain still classified,' he joked.

While at pains to voice support for British efforts to resolve the conflict through political negotiation, the President said that 'the human rights issue will have to be resolved in that context'. And looking ahead to the dinner, he added: 'Whether the United States can play any sort of constructive role is a subject we will discuss this evening.'

Mr Major made a long and passionate statement, however, insisting that any human rights abuses in the province were the result of terrorism. 'The abuses of human rights in Northern Ireland are the abuses of human rights for people who find bombs in shopping malls as they go about their ordinary, everyday business,' he said.

Ahead of Mr Major's arrival, Mr Clinton received letters from US senators and congressmen urging him to press the Northern Ireland issue. Several congressmen marked Mr Major's visit by denouncing his Northern Irish policy. A resolution was introduced on the floor of Congress by Joseph Kennedy demanding that President Clinton follow through on his promise to send an envoy.

Asked about the state of the special relationship between the US and Britain, President Clinton said before the meeting: 'It's special to me personally, special to the United States and I think it will be for as long as I am sitting here in this office.'

Turning to Bosnia, Mr Major praised American attempts to launch a military airlift of food and medical supplies to eastern Bosnia. Emphasising the role already being played by British troops on the ground, Mr Major added: 'I think the new initiative is very welcome.'

Mr Clinton stopped short of formally announcing the air-drop mission, saying consultations with US allies and the United Nations were not completed. He indicated that though the accuracy of drops would be impaired because planes would fly high to avoid ground- fire, leaflets would be dropped in advance of each pass as a warning to those on the ground.

On trade, Mr Clinton joined Mr Major in emphasising the need for a quick resolution of the Gatt world trade talks.

Serbs censure air-drop plan, page 9

Letters, page 22

Andrew Marr, page 23