Some Tory MPs privately warned that engaging British troops in a civil war in Bosnia would split the Tory party.
The deep concern was felt right up to the level of the Cabinet. 'It won't split the party . . . if it works,' one senior Cabinet minister said.
The Tory backbenchers, at a meeting of the defence and foreign affairs committees, were assured by Mr Rifkind that British troops were not in any immediate danger from Serb retaliation.
The backbenchers were told the British troops were mainly in Muslim-held and Croatian areas, beyond the fire power of the Serbs.
One of those at the meeting estimated that there were three Tory MPs against British support for air strikes, but the majority were 'reluctantly in favour'.
Several Tory MPs privately said Britain was being dragged into action and a possible war because it did not want to upset the Atlantic alliance with the United States.
'The minute a bomb drops on a school, where the Serb gunners have concealed their guns, public support will dissolve,' one ministerial aide said. 'It is very dangerous.'
Anti-Maastricht Tory MPs were also opposed to the action, which they saw as part of a European common foreign policy. About 40 Tory MPs attended the meeting. 'It was thinly attended, because not many really believe the shooting will start. But those with a military background are very concerned,' another who attended said.
Sir Nicholas Bonsor, chairman of the cross-party select committee on defence, said: 'There is a worry that having entered into this course of action, it may be extremely difficult to stop getting dragged further into the conflict.'
Douglas Hogg, Foreign Office minister, and Jeremy Hanley, Minister of State for the Armed Forces, also faced opposition from Tory MPs.
Mr Hurd's repeated emphasis yesterday on the importance of British backing for the Franco-US driven ultimatum to the future of the alliance appeared to have swung many MPs into support last night. Senior British officials acknowledge that wholehearted backing in Europe for a tough line will help President Bill Clinton to damp down internal criticism of the level of US Nato commitments in Europe.
At the same time Whitehall officials also maintain that a quid pro quo for the accord over Bosnia with the US will be Washington's strengthened diplomatic support for peace efforts. Paddy Ashdown, the Liberal Democrat leader, said the ultimatum would shift the balance of power in Bosnia because the Muslims had greater strength in infantry while the Serbian strength was in artillery.
Yugoslav army warning, page 12
Leading article, page 17
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