The Prime Minister's statement came as the United Nations appealed for 10,650 more troops to hold together the precarious ceasefires in Bosnia - a request aimed pointedly at Britain, France and the United States.
Mr Major modified earlier statements that Britain was bearing its fair share of the peace-keeping burden by telling the Commons it would consider increasing its force 'proportionately as part of a wider international effort'. His remarks followed what showed every sign of being a highly-placed leak of the Chiefs' mounting concern that Britain's 2,300 troops will be dangerously exposed if not reinforced.
However, there are continuing signs that the deep opposition on the Tory backbenches to further British military entanglement extends well into the Cabinet. Several ministers, including Kenneth Clarke, the Chancellor, are understood to be strongly opposed to an open-ended commitment to increase the British contingent.
Senior Whitehall officials were at pains to play down the difference between Mr Major's formulation yesterday and an Evening Standard article on Wednesday by Douglas Hurd. In that, the Foreign Secretary acknowledged the UN might need extra troops but added: 'The extra should come from elsewhere.'
Downing Street also made it clear no formal request had been made by the Chiefs of Staff endorsing the call for extra troops by Lieutenant- General Sir Michael Rose, commander of the UN forces. He said yesterday that his troops were 'operating on a wing and a prayer'.
Malcolm Rifkind, Secretary of State for Defence, who faces growing Army pressure to sanction an extra battalion, said yesterday: 'We've emphasised that, as the second-largest contributor . . . it's important that any further contribution by the international community should not just point to one country or two countries.'
General Jean Cot, the French commander-in-chief of the UN peace-keeping force, said the only countries in a position to despatch troops immediately were 'first the United States, second Britain and third France'. Speaking in Zagreb, General Cot criticised the US refusal to contribute ground troops until Serbs, Muslims and Croats signed a peace treaty.
The US has worked hard to help to achieve a Muslim-Croat agreement, signed in Washington on Tuesday, but insists it will send troops only when all three factions have subscribed to a settlement. President Bill Clinton and other senior officials have reiterated that at that point the US will provide up to a third of the total UN peace-
The UN's special envoy, Yasushi Akashi, said the UN had a force of nearly 14,000 in Bosnia and needed 4,600 more soldiers to enforce a Muslim-Serb truce around Sarajevo, 6,050 to keep apart Croats and Muslims in central and southern Bosnia, 150 more military observers and more than 500 civil police.
Mr Major's Commons statement came in reply to a demand from Winston Churchill, MP for Davyhulme, for Britain to meet three requests by General Rose. Government business managers believe Tory MPs in sympathy with Mr Churchill are far outnumbered by those opposing troop increases.
When Paddy Ashdown, Liberal Democrats' leader, accused him of being prepared to 'let go to waste' the peace in Sarajevo, Mr Major called on him to acknowledge the British contribution already made 'rather than carp, criticise and do so inaccurately'.
The Tories are 23.5 points behind Labour in a Gallup poll in today's Daily Telegraph. Labour is at 48.5 per cent (45.5 last month); Conservative 25 (26); Liberal Democrats 21 (23); Others 5.5 (5.5). Only 30 per cent of voters believe Britain is coming out of recession.
Weary men in trenches, page 12
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