Inside Parliament: Bosnia ruling under attack: Major refusal 'music to the ears of Serbs' - Smith proves taxing over 'basics' truth - Modest waves ruffle calm of Navy debate

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Indy Politics
John Major's rejection of the request from Lieutenant General Sir Michael Rose, the UN commander in Bosnia, for an additional battalion to protect Sarajevo drew quick condemnation from the opposition parties.

Paddy Ashdown said the Prime Minister's 'no' would be heard as 'music to the ears of the Serbs'. It was not the proper response from a British government to a British general who asked for the resources to do the job ordered of him, the Liberal Democrat leader said.

Labour defence spokesman Donald Anderson warned: 'History will judge us badly if, because of our over-cautious response now, there is an escalation of warfare in Bosnia and the opportunity arising from the ceasefire is indeed lost.'

The Prime Minister's use of Question Time to announce the Cabinet decision against sending many extra troops rather than make a statement drew angry protests, mainly from Labour MPs. By making a lengthy reply to a friendly Tory backbench question, Mr Major spared himself the cross-examination that automatically follows a statement.

Speaking before MPs learnt of Russia's decision to send troops, Mr Major said Britain and its allies had received a number of requests from the UN. 'The most immediate is for help in consolidating and monitoring the ceasefire in Sarajevo.'

The Government had agreed to provide urgent assistance by redeploying two companies of Coldstream Guards - 280 to 300 troops - from central Bosnia to help dimilitarise Sarajevo. A mortar-locating troop of around 60 soldiers would also be provided.

'The United Nations also asked for additional battalions for Unprofor from several countries. As Britain already has a large contingent there, we decided not to send an additional battalion as part of the general reinforcements,' he said.

Nicholas Budgen, a Tory opponent of British military involvement, suggested that Mr Major ask President Clinton 'why, if Bosnia is so important to the United States, doesn't the US commit ground troops to Bosnia?' But President Yeltsin had acted first.

Late last night it was claimed that Russia's intervention arose directly from a diplomatic initiative by the Prime Minister during his visit to Moscow. Jonathan Aitken, Minister for Defence Procurement said that Mr Major was to be congratulated.

'President Yeltsin privately gave the Prime Minister advance notice that he was going to send a personal emissary, deputy minister Churkin, to meet the Serbs, and that Russia might be prepared to deploy additional troops to Sarajevo to control heavy weapons. The Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary did everything they could to encourage this,' he said.

Mr Aitken, winding up a debate on the Royal Navy, said that with the 400 Russians, General Rose was getting more and more of the troops he had requested. The Sarajevo ceasefire appeared to be making 'encouraging progress' with a significant increase in the withdrawal of Serbian artillery.

John Smith again pursued the Prime Minister over taxation - linking an obligation to tell the truth with the Back to Basics albatross. Why, in an article in yesterday's Daily Express entitled 'What I mean by Back to Basics', was there no reference to taxation? Was it deliberate or accidental? Mr Smith asked.

Mr Major said the Labour leader knew very well that Back to Basics ran 'right across the whole strand of Government policy, including the economy . . . Because we have been following sensible economic policies, we now have growth in this economy unmatched by other countries across Europe.'

But Mr Smith came back: 'If Back to Basics covers all these things, why is there no reference to taxation?' The truth was that Mr Major was gravely embarrassed by the 'duplicity' of his administration before the election and its incompetence since.

The Labour leader said that Mr Major had claimed, 'perhaps understandably', that Back to Basics was not a moral crusade but that it did have a moral dimension.

'Does that moral dimension not include telling the truth about tax to the people?'

Mr Major responded: 'The reality is that this is the party that cuts taxes and it always has been. Not even Mr Smith can conceive of any circumstances on any occasion when taxation would be lower under a Labour government than under a Conservative government.'

Making modest waves during the Navy debate, Sir Nicholas Bonsor, Tory chairman of the Defence select committee, warned that the fleet was too small to keep the seas open in times of war. A few of his colleagues complained that women sailors were not physically equipped for tasks of firefighting and lifting heavy equipment.

But Jeremy Hanley, Minister for the Armed Forces, rejected the notion that support for women sailors was an example of political correctness. Women in the navy were contributing at every level, he said. 'We have had a woman prime minister. There is no reason why we cannot have a woman First Sea Lord.'