Serbs take 33 Britons hostage

Major in crisis meeting after troops seized
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in Sarajevo


The Bosnian Serbs captured 33 British soldiers in Gorazde yesterday to add to more than 300 peace-keepers held as "human shields" against further Nato air strikes.

The 33 Royal Welch Fusilers manning posts along the front lines of the government-held enclave of Gorazde, in eastern Bosnia, were overwhelmed by Serb forces yesterday afternoon, hours before the Prime Minister held an emergency meeting in Downing Street with senior M inisters and military advisers on the deteriorating situation.

The capture of the British soldiers came as the Serbs continued pressing their offensive against the United Nations as the major powers dithered over how to respond. The Serbs approached four observation posts and two check-points calmly and then, at close range, pointed guns at the peace- keepers, disarmed them and took them away to Ustipraca, a town east of Gorazde. Soldiers at three other posts escaped, but the fate of a fourth patrol is unknown.

The Downing Street meeting, had been arranged on Saturday night to discuss the Bosnia crisis, but took an added urgency after John Major was told of the capture of British soldiers while at Lords, watching cricket.

The meeting was briefed by Malcolm Rifkind, Defence Secretary and Field Marshal Sir Peter Inge, Chief of the Defence Staff. Mr Rifkind said before the meeting: "We strongly deplore the Bosnian Serb action in seizing British soldiers .This is an extremely serious development."

However, there was no immediate sign of a change in UK support of continued UN involvement in Bosnia, despite some calls in the Tory Party for a withdrawal of British troops.

Mr Major made clear in an interview in the Mail on Sunday that he did not want an immediate withdrawal of Britain's 3,380 troops. "I am absolutely certain they are doing a worthwhile job. They have saved an awful lot of lives and their presence has held back the amount of fighting there would have been, even though their mission is humanitarian." But the Prime Minister is facing pressure for a pull-out from senior Tory backbenchers.

In Bosnia, the British commander ordered all other troops to return to base in Gorazde, a UN-declared "safe area", for fear of a wider Serb attack. In this case, "the observation posts were not properly defended because the Serbs did not give us a chance to bring the stuff in," Alex Ivanko, a UN spokesman in Sarajevo, said yesterday.

Lt-General Rupert Smith, the British UN commander in Bosnia, held a 30- minute telephone conversation yesterday with General Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb commander, who threatened the safety of British troops in Gorazde if the UN did not release four Serb soldiers captured on Saturday. Gen Mladic's 6pm deadline passed with no apparent ill-effect and Serbs still in French hands.

The Britons join 171 peace-keepers, mostly French and Ukrainian, disarmed at weapons collection sites around Sarajevo, 32 unarmed military observers held hostage by the Serbs and another 146 UN troops surrounded by Serb soldiers, backed by tanks.

British politicians were united in their condemnation, though differing on future strategy. Robin Cook, shadow foreign secretary, said that it would be "totally irresponsible" to talk of withdrawal at present.

But Sir Nicholas Bonsor, the Tory chairman of the Commons defence select committee, urged that British troops be drawn back away from the peripheral areas into the central region.

Paddy Ashdown, the Liberal Democrat leader, said the capture of the soldiers was a "barbarous and unacceptable" escalation.

Bosnia crisis, pages 2,3

Leading article, page 15