MPs fear Serbian blockade may draw UK into war: Last wounded leave Srebrenica - Muslims fight Croats in central Bosnia

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The Independent Online
DOUGLAS HURD, the Foreign Secretary, said yesterday that a blockade of Serbia would be imposed with United Nations sanctions next week, raising alarm among senior Tory MPs that the West will be sucked into the military conflict.

One leading Conservative critic said: 'It implies that we will enforce it with military action. But who is going to fire the first shot?'

Mr Hurd carefully kept open the air strikes option, but said the Government's judgement was it would do more harm than good. He warned MPs the West could not afford to 'be bluffing'. Arming the Bosnian Muslims - Baroness Thatcher's option - has gained little backing at Westminster.

Referring on BBC television's Newsnight last night to Lady Thatcher's demands for action, Sir Edward Heath, the former prime minister, said: 'It takes far more guts and determination for the Prime Minister and the Cabinet to stand up against the pressures . . . than it does to scream that something must be done.'

In Bosnia, UN helicopters completed the rescue of all 351 seriously wounded from Srebrenica. The first 133 were flown out on Sunday.

However, in a potential obstacle to the smooth implementation of Sunday's agreement between Serb and Muslim army commanders, General Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb army head, said his forces would not withdraw from around Srebrenica, because combat operations were 'frozen at current lines'.

General Philippe Morillon, commander of UN peace-keeping forces in Bosnia, said on Sunday that besieging troops would withdraw as soon as Srebrenica was demilitarised. All Muslim weapons are to be collected by tomorrow, although the UN asked yesterday for a day's extension.

The day-old ceasefire around the town, where about 30,000 refugees remain trapped, held yesterday. But a three-week-old ceasefire across the rest of Bosnia deteriorated. In Vitez, central Bosnia, British soldiers ran for cover as open fighting broke out between Muslim and Croatian forces, nominally allied against the Serbs. A British army spokeswoman estimated that 150-200 people had been killed since Thursday.

The UN blockade will be enforced next Monday, the day after the Russian referendum, by forces in the Adriatic and a monitoring Danube flotilla. Seven RAF Tornado aircraft were sent yesterday to help to enforce the no-fly zone.

The Government is anxious to avoid any impression of Anglo-American disagreement. The Prime Minister's office said John Major briefed Cabinet colleagues on his Sunday telephone call with President Bill Clinton. Malcolm Rifkind, Secretary of State for Defence, will in Washington tomorrow reinforce Britain's case for caution over military action.

Talks in Washington with France's President Francois Mitterrand and other leaders are likely before a decision on the West's next move, which US officials said might be made this week.

The White House is waiting to see the effect of newly reinforced UN sanctions against Belgrade, and whether the Srebrenica ceasefire produces a genuine halt to hostilities. If not, the White House seems all but certain to seek either an end to the arms embargo against Bosnian Muslims, or the direct bombing of Serbian military installations.