Troops will stay in Bosnia, Blair says

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The Independent Online
Tony Blair signalled yesterday that he was prepared to keep British peace-keeping troops in Bosnia "to see this thing through".

The Prime Minister flew to Bosnia, ravaged by war between 1992 and 1995, for a six-hour morale-boosting visit to British troops serving with the Nato-led Stabilisation Force (S-For).

"The reasons for getting in here in the first place and the reasons for staying are still here, and I think it is important we see this thing through," he declared.

Mr Blair, seeking to underline Britain's commitment to Nato-led peace- keeping operations, flew in through thick fog to Banja Luka, the main town in the Bosnian Serb republic. There, he held a 15-minute meeting at the airport with the Bosnian Serb President, Biljana Plavsic, in a show of British support for her leadership.

Mrs Plavsic has pledged to abide by the 1995 Dayton peace agreement for Bosnia and waged a power struggle against her hardline nationalist opponents.

He toured a huge derelict engineering factory where British troops are housed, and ate a greasy hot dog before inspecting Warrior armoured fighting vehicles and climbing onto a Challenger tank.

Most of the 5,000-strong British contingent is based in the Banja Luka region. The British soldiers have played a pivotal role in the conflict pitting the Western-backed Plavsic against hardliners loyal to Radovan Karadzic, the wartime Serb leader indicted for war crimes.

Hundreds of British soldiers in armoured vehicles surrounded police stations this summer in Banja Luka to enable Mrs Plavsic to remove hardline opponents and assert control over police units in the area. British troops were also involved in a shoot-out in the Bosnian Serb town of Prijedor in July, in which one war crimes suspect was shot dead and another arrested and sent for trial at the International War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague.

Mr Blair said that bringing war criminals to justice was an important part of the British role in bringing peace to Bosnia, which he described as "an incredible achievement".

Mr Blair's visit comes a week before Nato defence ministers meet to discuss the future of the Bosnia peacekeeping mission, which has about six months left in its 18-month mandate.

Western governments have indicated they intend to extend the peacekeeping operation beyond June 1998, but the precise size and nature of a follow-on force has yet to be decided.

- Reuters

Banja Luka