Parliament and Politics: MPs attempt to clarify troops' role in Bosnia

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BRITISH troops heading for Bosnia to guard relief convoys still do not have a cast-iron mission or rules of engagement, and the Government has no idea how long they might be there, MPs were told yesterday.

The deployment of a further 1,800 troops to Bosnia from next month is putting the Army under pressure as its strength is reduced by the Government's Options for Change defence review. The infantry is short of new recruits - the soldiers most needed in the post-Cold War environment, Archie Hamilton, Minister of State for the Armed Forces, said.

In a rare move, the House of Commons Defence Committee convened in open session yesterday to examine Mr Hamilton and his professional advisers.

A reinforced battalion of the Cheshire Regiment will deploy next month to north-east Bosnia, in the area around Tuzla. It is still unclear whether it will be sustained by supplies from the east, through Serbia, or the west, from Rijeka and through Croatia.

The chairman, Sir Nicholas Bonsor (C, Upminster) said he understood the UN had not made contact with guerrilla forces in the Tuzla area, and that the British Army would be operating in one of the most difficult regions.

Citing standard principles of military operations, Michael Colvin (C, Romsey and Waterside) asked Mr Hamilton: 'What's the objective?'

Mr Hamilton replied: 'We are going to escort convoys of UNHCR (UN High Commission on Refugees) aid. We are not there to impose peace. All of this is a process of negotiating these convoys through. We are not in the business of fighting these convoys through. If they are ambushed they have the right to return fire.'

Asked by John Home Robertson (Lab, East Lothian) how long British troops would be there, Mr Hamilton replied: 'I have absolutely no idea'.