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Army cuts 'limit ability to intervene in Bosnia'

BRITAIN'S ability to intervene in Bosnia is limited by a shortage of cash and the planned cuts to the Army, especially its infantry, a former Nato commander said yesterday. The other arguments against sending in a large force were a smokescreen, he said.

General Sir Anthony Farrar- Hockley, former commander of Nato's northern European command, said current proposals to send up to 1,800 British troops as part of a 6,000-strong Nato force were inadequate and merely danced to the Serbs' tune. At least 60,000 troops - three or four divisions - were required, he said. Otherwise, the international community was merely accepting the Serbs' conquest of most of Bosnia, an independent state. This sent the wrong message to other potential aggressors.

Britain has offered the United Nations 1,800 troops to guard supply convoys into beleaguered Bosnia. But General Farrar-Hockley said the Army was already stretched to meet its commitments in Northern Ireland and elsewhere, and committing one reinforced battalion to Bosnia was the absolute limit. Those who argued against intervention were making excuses based on 'flawed reasoning', he said. Army sources yesterday admitted that a bigger deployment to Yugoslavia would probably halt the Options for Change defence review cuts and that even 1,800 troops would cause some short-term problems.

Defence experts have been reluctant to recommend intervention in Bosnia, but yesterday, on the eve of the London peace conference, there was a perceptible swing in favour of action. General Farrar-Hockley told a seminar of experts organised by the Institute for European and Defence Studies that Britain and Nato should make a determined effort to stop the fighting in Bosnia and deny the Serbs the fruits of conquest, or face grim consequences. The experts said the military prowess of the Serbs had been exaggerated as an excuse for not intervening.

'Why has it not been done? There is a very shady answer. It's money. The Army hasn't got enough battalions. If you start sending off battalions to south- east Europe, there will have to be a halt in the budget run-down.'

Under the Government's Options for Change review, the Army's infantry will be reduced from a strength of 52 battalions to 50 by the end of this year and 39 by the end of 1995. One armoured infantry battalion, the Cheshire Regiment, is on stand-by to move to Bosnia, but the Cheshires are due to be amalgamated with the Staffordshire Regiment next year.

Mark Almond, a Fellow of Oriel College, Oxford, and an authority on eastern Europe, said that Bosnian Serb irregulars had proved incapable of effectively using the arsenal inherited from the Yugoslav army, that few Serbs were willing to fight and fewer still against Western forces. But the Bosnian Muslims facing them could do many of the infantry jobs themselves if properly armed.

He said the current arms embargo favoured the Serbs, that not sending arms would not stop the fighting and that, ultimately, Western countries would have to make an unpleasant decision: 'Who should be the people who are killed?'

Mr Almond said military intervention would require a 'considerable degree of public education about what the objectives of such a strategy would be'.