Nato to send ships and jets to Adriatic

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The Independent Online
JOHN MAJOR said yesterday that Britain would have to provide air cover if its Western European partners decide to open a land corridor through Bosnia and enforce sanctions against Serbia - putting British lives at risk.

But the Prime Minister made clear that the Government would take such a decision with reluctance and had no intention of sending troops into the Yugoslav conflict. It would be 'difficult to be efficient and acutely difficult to get out', he said.

Mr Major, who has said privately that he believes public opinion would not tolerate British deaths in a conflict which appears never-ending, said about the prospective land corridor: 'If, if such an operation were feasible, Britain would be prepared to consider providing air cover for it, but we would not provide ground troops.' He added that a corridor 'is a very difficult proposition, a very difficult proposition indeed'.

Mr Major said: 'The territory resembles nothing more than it resembles Dien Bien Phu (the site of France's defeat in Vietnam), and you remember the difficulties there.'

Many saw his remarks as aimed at the French, and speculated that he would not have used the comparison with Dien Bien Phu had it been a US operation in Vietnam rather than a French one.

Mr Major made his remarks as the two Western defence alliances, Nato and the Western European Union, announced plans to deploy sea and air power in the Adriatic in support of the sanctions. Despite earlier British reservations, the nine-nation WEU - of which Britain is a member and the most sceptical about sending in ground troops - said that it would send up to six ships and four maritime aircraft to patrol the Yugoslav coast.

Later, Nato said it would use eight ships in the Mediterranean in support of the WEU operation.

Paul Beaver, publisher of Jane's Defense Weekly magazine, said the Nato force could be in the Adriatic by Sunday morning. He said the British frigate HMS Avenger, en route to Gibraltar, would join the force.

The WEU and Nato decisions were announced at a summit in Helsinki of the 52-nation Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe.

Diplomats in New York said the measures seemed intended more to force a change of regime in Serbia, whose President, Slobodan Milosevic, is seen as bearing prime responsibility for the war, than to enforce sanctions.

'We see it as a political gesture more than a practical one. There's not much sanctions-busting by sea,' one diplomat said.

Manfred Worner, the Nato Secretary-General, said that the details would be worked out next week. 'We will put into it whatever it takes to make such a mission succeed.'

The WEU said it had agreed to explore the option of 'ground transport through humanitarian corridors' to supply relief aid to Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, told Radio 4's The World At One there was no appetite in Britain for sending in soldiers. 'I do not believe people, when they pause to consider it, believe that is a sensible thing to attempt.'

Nato was prompted to involve itself in the crisis largely because of a Franco-Italian initiative to call the WEU into action. Nato, which the Americans and British fear is being undermined by some European allies, called its emergency meeting in Helsinki only after it became known that the Europeans were holding theirs.

President Francois Mitterrand, the driving force behind the international action, was careful not to trumpet the development as a victory for Europeans over Atlanticists. But Roland Dumas, the French Foreign Minister, privately hailed the WEU initiative as 'an affirmation of the existence of Europe'. He said the WEU would meet within days to push for the monitoring to be upgraded to a blockade - where ships would have the right to search vessels suspected of breaking sanctions. That would require a new UN Security Council resolution.

Gunboat diplomacy, page 10

Leading article, page 14