Parties unite to welcome dispatch of reinforcements

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The Independent Online

Political Correspondent

MPs on both sides of the House of Commons welcomed the government's action in sending more troops to Bosnia on the eve of tomorrow's emergency debate in the Commons, but were divided over whether it should be a cover for eventual withdrawal.

Tomorrow's recall of parliament from the Whitsun recess is likely to see Tony Blair, the Labour leader, offering the government broad support. But Robin Cook, Labour's foreign affairs spokesman, in an article in today's Independent insists that Britain should confront Serbian aggression: "Talk of withdrawal while our troops are held hostage is so irresponsible," he writes. "The immediate requirement for a military response to armed blackmail" should be backed up by a mass propaganda campaign, he adds.

Paddy Ashdown, the Liberal Democrat leader, also urged meeting the Serbs with force: "The vital thing is that the international community is seen to act together and the Serbs are seen to understand that if they provoke then we respond in kind."

Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, said yesterday that UN troops need to be "regrouped" and strengthened so that they are less vulnerable. And there will be fierce argument in tomorrow's debate about the purpose of regrouping. Many Conservative backbenchers support it because they see it as preparation for withdrawal, while many Labour backbenchers support it because they see it as getting tough with the Serbs.

Sir Archie Hamilton (C, Epsom and Ewell), a former defence minister, said yesterday: "The Labour side believe you can bash the Serbs and win a war. But it is a classic Afghanistan, Vietnam, Northern Ireland set- up, where you could end up fighting a guerrilla war for years. These men love fighting and they are born to do it."

Calum Macdonald (Lab, Western Isles) insisted: "We have to make it clear to the Serbian leadership that if they harm the hostages that would be a declaration of war on the United Nations." He welcomed Mr Cook's "robust" line in condemning the taking and threatening of hostages as a "war crime".

Malcolm Rifkind, Secretary of State for Defence, performed a careful balancing act, saying: "We have no intention of launching a war in Bosnia. We are not fighting a war but the protection of our own forces is a crucial requirement." He described the safety of British hostages as "a vital British interest" - a signal to the Serbs designed to counter suggestions from the Conservative backbenches that Britain has no national interest at stake in Bosnia. He added: "The taking of UN peacekeeping personnel as hostages ... is the action of terrorist organisations. That is something that is totally unacceptable and requires a very, very important response."

Sir Edward Heath repeated his call for British troops to pull out: "It started as a humanitarian action that was justifiable, but now we are facing a situation where we may be dragged into a major war and that is absolutely unjustifiable."

Tomorrow's Commons debate is only the 13th time parliament has been recalled during a recess since 1945.