Inside Parliament: Hollow laughter greets threat to Serbs: Ministers accused of Bosnia 'appeasement' - Lord Chancellor's action in Cyprus questioned - Rail privatisation debate continues

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Accusations of 'appeasement' and 'betrayal' were levelled in the Commons yesterday as the cross-party group of MPs who have supported tougher action to protect the Bosnian Muslims reacted angrily to the United Nations 'safe areas' plan.

Douglas Hogg, the Foreign Office minister, portrayed the plan as a logical consequence of the acceptance by Western nations that they would not deploy ground troops to 'roll back' Bosnian Serb aggression.

But hollow laughter greeted his assertion that the Government did not accept that aggression should be rewarded and that sanctions would be kept against Serbia until Bosnian Serbs withdrew from Muslim areas.

Patrick Cormack, Conservative MP for Staffordshire South, said the West had been tried and found wanting in the first test of the post-Cold War era. In the last year, 250,000 Bosnians had been slain, 2,500,000 people displaced and many thousands raped. 'What comfort can his statement offer to those people?'

Making an emergency statement in response to a Labour request, Mr Hogg replied: 'This is the greatest tragedy, the greatest crime Europe has seen since the Second World War . . . Can I bring comfort? The answer is 'no'. I wish I could, but I can't'

George Robertson, a Labour foreign affairs spokesman, suggested that the plan, proposed by the foreign ministers of Britain, the US, Russia, France and Spain, was 'just a recipe for creating five or more new permanent refugee camps'.

'Will it not simply be seen as a cleverly constructed and diplomatically phrased climb-down in the face of the Bosnian Serb rejection of their leader's signature on the Vance-Owen plan three weeks ago?'

Labour has advocated an ultimatum to withdraw, backed by the threat of air strikes on Bosnian Serb supply lines. Sceptical about the value of the 'safe areas', Mr Robertson said it appeared civilians would be disarmed, but air cover restricted to the UN troops. An increasingly puzzled and suspicious world community might well conclude 'that the standing of the UN has been gravely undermined and that the legitimate rights of the government of Bosnia and the people it seeks to represent have been abandoned'.

Sir David Steel, former leader of the Liberal Democrats, said his party had argued for safe havens last August and were told it was impossible. 'Now that more territory has been grabbed from the Muslim communities, aggression by the Serbs is going to be rewarded under the agreement that has been made.' Mr Hogg said Paddy Ashdown had wanted 'a much more intense level of military activity' than was now contemplated. The Liberal Democrat leader shouted his agreement.

Max Madden, Labour MP for Bradford West, said: 'The message of this agreement to the aggressors and ethnic cleansers around the world is 'Do your worst, you have nothing to fear from the UN and the international community except bluff, bluster, dither and delay. This agreement represents a massive betrayal of the people of Bosnia.' David Winnick, Labour MP for Walsall North, said the agreement was 'a victory for appeasement'.

But Mr Hogg told MPs: 'The plain truth is that this war in its essential characteristics is a civil war and it is virtually impossible by the application of external force to put an end to a civil war.'

In blunter terms than his superior, Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, would have used, Mr Hogg went on: 'You can't use UK ground troops in a combat role unless a country is solidly behind such a venture and the truth is, it isn't. And there isn't such an opinion in this House either.'

As always with Bosnia, the House was divided. Sir Anthony Grant, Conservative MP for Cambridgeshire South West, said the Government was right to resist the military ambitions of 'television arm-chair warriors' and not imperil British troops in a 'mad adventure'.

His Conservative party colleague, Julian Brazier, MP for Canterbury, said the best hope for Bosnia was for everyone to recognise there was no prospect of putting Bosnia back together without the agreement of the Serbs and Croats. 'We need an ethnic partition of the sort that has happened in Cyprus.'

The divided island had been on MPs' minds at Question Time when John Fraser, Labour's legal affairs spokesman, said the Lord Chancellor had behaved like 'a kind of Mediterranean bounty hunter' in going to northern Cyprus to try and secure the return of the bail-jumping bankrupt, Asil Nadir. Lord Mackay of Clashfern was, after all, the head of the judicial service, Mr Fraser observed. 'It seems a rather bizarre thing for for a judge to do.'

No mention of Mr Nadir, chairman of Polly Peck International, is complete without a reference to his generosity to the Conservative Party. This time the donation was highlighted by John Denham, Labour MP for Southampton Itchen, who asked if Lord Mackay had been advised on his visit by the Attorney General's office or the Foreign Office. Sir Nicholas Lyell, the Attorney General, dead batted throughout, agreeing only that those who were accused to stand trial here should appear 'so that justice may be done'.

Most of the Commons' day was devoted to privatising British Rail. At Question Time, Roger Freeman, Minister of State for Transport, reaffirmed the intention to let the first of the franchises in the second half of next year and later MPs began the Report Stage of the Railways Bill.

'Our policy has not changed . . . the long-term plan is for the franchising of all BR services,' Mr Freeman said. With criticism of privatisation focused on the future of rail cards and travelcards, he told MPs that BR had introduced the cards without pressure from ministers or as a result of legislation.

'They introduced them for good commercial reasons and there is no reason to believe that franchisees would not wish to continue them.' Potential Tory rebels will be looking for a more reassurance when consideration of the Bill resumes today.