The proposed airlift to Gorazde, where 300 British troops and 50,000 civilians are surrounded by Bosnian Serb forces, would be the first phase of a military response to the Serb offensive against the "safe areas" in the past week. Officials in Washington expressed the administration's willingness to consider using US helicopters and air support to transport members of the 12,000-man Rapid Reaction Force, made up mostly of British and French troops.
One "safe area", Srebrenica, has already fallen to the Serbs and a second, Zepa, was under heavy attack yesterday. Bosnian Serb forces released 55 Dutch UN peace-keepers after taking them hostage during the Serb attack on Srebrenica.
Meanwhile, the refugee crisis mounted. UN and local officials in Bosnian- controlled Tuzla were struggling to clear the first wave of 8,000 to 9,000 women, children and old men to have flooded in from Srebrenica, before a second expected influx of 15,000 reached the town. If Zepa falls, up to 15,000 more may follow. Extreme concern is being expressed for the thousands of men detained and young women abducted by the Serbs after they captured Srebrenica.
The EU Commissioner for Humanitarian Affairs, Emma Bonino, who yesterday visited Tuzla, said the major problem was "some 15,000" missing persons: "There are men missing, but also the young women . . . We are most concerned about that."
The refugees were arriving mostly on foot after five days on the road, and the Tuzla authorities were desperately bussing them out to local reception centres to clear the camp. What was once the largest airbase in the former Yugoslavia now holdsgreat masses of human beings.
The diplomatic squabbling between London and Paris continued yesterday. The Foreign Secretary, Malcolm Rifkind, rejected French charges of appeasement and said what was needed was not talk but a plan. He told BBC radio: "If France actually believed that military action could save Zepa and Srebrenica, then no doubt French troops would be marching on Zepa and Srebrenica at this time. They are not." The French, however, insisted that their plan had been put before the Prime Minister, John Major, on Friday.
At Heathrow airport on his way to speak to the US Congressyesterday, Mohammed Sacirbey, the Bosnian Foreign Minister, said the only future for the defence of his country would be in Washington, and the British Government's prevarication had made it a "non-player".
Besides today's military meeting, Britain has summoned members of the five-country Contact Group, together with UN and Nato representatives, to London on Friday. It is understood that a final decision on the French proposal for a multinational force will be taken at that meeting. The Contact Group meeting was welcomed by Russia, which has long opposed international military action in Bosnia, but in Britain the former defence secretary, Sir John Nott, said: "I am astonished that the Prime Minister should have called a conference on Bosnia in one week's time. Is it not plain that Britain's Bosnian policy is in ruins and no conference can put it together again?
"In one week's time Zepa and Gorazde may have fallen and British soldiers been taken hostage once again. This is a time for leadership, not another conference."
However, the British government may favour a reconfiguration and concentration of forces in central Bosnia, with a withdrawal from the east. Although a reinforcement of Gorazde would complicate this, the humanitarian price of failing to reinforce might be too great.
In Zagreb, the Croatian Foreign Minister, Mate Granic, said yesterday that Croatia and Bosnia should join forces in response to the Serb military threat, and announced that their leaders would meet within 10 days to discuss such an alliance. Further reports, pages 16-17Reuse content