Politicians divided on choices over Bosnia: Colin Brown reports on the possibility of military action to quell the bloodletting in the Balkans

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The Independent Online
'PEOPLE want to do something as soon as they see lots of children being shot at and one can understand that. But it's when you get down to the first body bags being brought back with British soldiers in them, that's when public opinion would turn against it.

'There is only an electoral downside to this.'

That view, expressed yesterday by a former minister, may seem cynical to those moved by the television coverage of children maimed by shrapnel in Sarajevo, but it is the bottom line under British foreign policy on the Balkans.

All the parties are united in opposing Britain getting sucked into a bloody ground war in Bosnia. All sides believe Bosnia should be compared to Beirut, not the Gulf war. But there are divisions about the extent to which Britain and the other members of the European Community can stand back while the bloodletting continues.

Opinion is split at the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence over whether the EC should take military action to stop the fighting in the former Yugoslavia.

John Major is firmly in the camp of the cautious majority who oppose direct military intervention by Britain.

The former minister said: 'There are two schools in the Foreign Office and in the MoD and, I suspect, two schools in the Cabinet. One school, the pro-German school, is saying that you cannot let this go on or we will have a Lebanon on our doorstep. The other school is saying there is no UK interest in it. It has absolutely no impact on the EC whatsoever.

'Douglas Hurd (the Foreign Secretary) is frothing around. His big mistake was to let the Germans persuade him to recognise Croatia. That is when it went up. That is one reason why it's better to have John Major as the leader than Douglas Hurd. He's tougher.'

The FO and the MoD prepared contingency plans at an early stage and quickly came to the conclusion that military action would be impossible without unacceptably heavy casualties in an area said by military experts to be 'a guerrilla's paradise' where a massive force of SS Panzer troops was unable to suppress Tito's forces during the Second World War.

Ministers would not admit to it publicly, for fear of being accused of allowing cynicism to dictate foreign policy, but an underlying reason for the reluctance to act was the foreboding that it would encourage separatist nationalist uprisings across eastern Europe. If the EC acted as fireman once, it would be fighting fires across the Continent.

Pressed by Germany into recognising Croatia, Britain and the rest of the 12 EC countries have sought to limit the diplomatic damage with a minimalist approach. Britain was quick to offer aid, but insisted on limiting it to medical and logistical support in order to avoid being drawn deeper into the war.

According to Conservative Central Office, this is backed by Tory constituencies, which have registered their view that Britain has taken enough refugees, although the question has caused less controversy at grass roots level than the David Mellor affair.

Opinion could change if the television barrage gets worse. Baroness Chalker, the Minister for Overseas Development, said: 'I don't think sometimes the British media realise exactly what you are asking when you ask Britain or EC forces, or forces from Nato, to go into the war.

'Having seen the situation for ourselves and having the best military advice available to us, we firmly believe that we must find a non-intervention way out of this. I hope this will be achievable. Wherever you have a war you have this sort of picture coming home.

'The difficulty in the present situation is not taking pictures, it is doing the humanitarian task safely without endangering more lives, which some of the suggestions which have been made would do.'