Inside Parliament: Fears of open war create sombre mood

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John Major and Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, were left in no doubt yesterday about the deep misgivings of senior Conservatives at the prospect of air strikes to break the siege of Sarajevo.

At Question Time, the Prime Minister was told that Britain's only interest in Bosnia should be to help distribute aid. Later, as Mr Hurd made a statement on the Nato decision, the Tory chairmen of two key Commons select committees warned against the danger of being drawn into open war.

David Howell, chairman of the foreign affairs committee, urged Mr Hurd to continue to impress upon Britain's Nato allies that it should be 'a very limited operation indeed'. Troops and relief workers should be protected in the most thorough way possible.

Capturing the resigned mood of the majority of the crowded chamber, Mr Howell said: 'We have now reached the sombre moment when all the remaining choices open to us in this affair are fraught with the most enormous dangers. In the circumstances, the attempt to demilitarise Sarajevo with the backing of the ultimatum of the Nato powers is probably the least worst choice.'

Sir Nicholas Bonsor, chairman of the defence committee, said that given the importance of Nato and the European alliance to Britain's defence, it must have been right for Mr Hurd to have agreed with the allies on Wednesday. But Sir Nicholas went on: 'There is deep concern in this House and the country as to the consequences of these actions if they are allowed to get out of hand.'

He warned of the risk of slipping 'down the path to open war', and sought an assurance that the Russians would not take 'overt action' on behalf of the Serbs. The Russian threat worried other MPs, including Ernie Ross, Labour MP for Dundee West. Mr Hurd told him that steps had been taken to make sure the Russians understood what was proposed.

The Nato decision was specific to dealing with heavy weapons around Sarajevo, Mr Hurd emphasised. The safety of British forces was the Government's 'paramount concern'. They could be reinforced and provided with close air support if necessary. Repeatedly stressing the importance of solidarity, the Foreign Secretary said many of the allies, particularly the United States, believed the action agreed was 'crucial' for Nato.

'If we had frustrated the decision then I do not doubt that we would have administered to ourselves, to our own defence policy, a very severe shock.'

But Sir Terence Higgins, Conservative MP for Worthing, said positive action should have been taken 18 months ago and declared that Bosnia, as a sovereign state, should not be denied the arms to defend itself. He and Patrick Cormack, Tory MP for South Staffordshire, believed the credibility of the international community was at stake.

Labour and the Liberal Democrats have for months been calling for tougher action and both parties welcomed the statement.

Mr Major told MPs he personally did not believe that doing nothing would have been right in the wake of the mortar attacks on Sarajevo. But he too faced doubters.

Sir Patrick McNair-Wilson, Conservative MP for the New Forest, said Britain's only interest in Bosnia was to assist in the provision of humanitarian aid. 'Will the Prime Minister assure the House that by attacking any of the combatants we will not prejudice that effort?'

Mr Major said the Nato measures were intended 'primarily to reinforce the peace process'. There would be renewed diplomatic efforts to encourage all sides to reach agreement and stick to it.

'No course in Bosnia is free of risks. . . But I do not myself believe that doing nothing in the circumstances that have now arisen is an option that would be right for this House to adopt or right for Nato. We do not favour purely punitive action. Force should not be used unless it is genuinely necessary and helps the chance of a peaceful settlement.'

In a trailer for today's Second Reading debate on a backbench Bill to ban tobacco advertising, Paul Flynn, Labour MP for Newport West, cried 'corruption' and held up a letter from the Imperial Tobacco Company. He said it explained that the company awarded 1,000 advertising sites to the Tories at the general election 'because that party promised not to ban tobacco advertising'.

'The Government has now delivered on that promise to their paymasters. The cost will be borne by the nation in several thousand avoidable, unnecessary deaths.'

Mr Flynn asked for a promise that the Tories would never again accept 'bribes, favours or money' from the tobacco industry. But Mr Flynn said the Government had 'an excellent record' in reducing smoking - down from 45 to 28 per cent - achieved through tax changes.

In a pointer to trouble to come for the Conservatives over their manifesto for the European Parliament elections, Mr Major rejected that of the European People's Party - the grouping to which Tory MEPs belong. A friendly question from Nigel Waterson, MP for Eastbourne, enabled him to rubbish the manifesto of the European Socialist Party.

It would cost the taxpayer 'billions of pounds' and be desperately damaging to British industry, he said. Mr Waterson called the document a 'fast route to failure'.

But Labour had the last laugh when the less than friendly Bill Cash, Tory MP for Stafford and unceasing EU critic, asked if Mr Major had seen the manifesto adopted by the EPP earlier this month. It contained commitments to a single currency, a central bank, the social chapter, a common immigration policy and a constitution for the whole of Europe. The Prime Minister said the Conservatives did not have to accept those aims and nor would they.

The Tories' manifesto is being drafted in conditions of great secrecy. Mr Cash and his fellow sceptics have been denied any input - as have the Europhiles. But Mr Major's assured him it would be a 'distinctively British' Conservative programme.