Inside Parliament: MPs agonise over action on Bosnia: Owen should quit, Heath says - Hurd keeps open option of air strikes - Smith warns against lifting arms embargo

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Sir Edward Heath, the former Conservative prime minister, called yesterday for the retirement of Lord Owen, the EC peace negotiator, as the Commons anguished over the crisis in Bosnia.

Only the desirability of continuing the humanitarian aid effort united the House. Beyond that, MPs were split on non-party lines over what, if anything, could be done to end the fighting and bring the Bosnian Serbs to the negotiating table.

John Smith, the Labour leader, advocated air strikes while some of his backbenchers, notably Chris Mullin, the former editor of Tribune, thought only ground forces could halt Serbian aggression.

The first full debate on Bosnia showed similar divisions on the Conservative benches, with significant support for Sir Edward when he declared that 'in no circumstances' should British forces be usedon land, sea or in the air in former Yugoslavia.

Earlier, in a rare Question Time intervention, Sir Edward urged the Prime Minister to give an 'absolutely clear, categorical assurance' that no British forces would become involved except for humanitarian reasons. Without one, it would be suspected that Britain was being 'dragged stage by stage into a European war or pushed there by Washington, and both are intolerable'.

No assurance was forthcoming from the Prime Minister. Winding up the debate, Malcolm Rifkind, Secretary of State for Defence, criticised Sir Edward's request as 'unwise'. 'It is very important to ensure that the Serbs cannot take for granted certain policies and inaction on the part of the international community.'

Sir Edward said that if the US proposed air strikes, Britain should use its veto in the United Nations Security Council. He dismissed the Vance-Owen peace plan as 'hopelessly irrelevant' and said the European Community should ask Lord Owen politely to retire. 'You can't carry on as a peace negotiator if you are publicly announcing that the answer has got to be force.'

The Bosnian Serbs had 70 per cent of the territory at the moment and were not going to go back to 43 per cent, he added. 'You have got to have peace negotiators who are prepared to recognise the reality of life and negotiate. . . This is a civil war which is dealing with Yugoslav history going back for centuries.'

While some MPs agreed, others, on both sides of the chamber, heckled the former prime minister. Patrick Cormack, Conservative MP for Staffordshire South, asked: 'Doesn't he see now that an independently recognised sovereign state has been invaded and it is being dismembered and its people are being butchered in front of our eyes?'

Opening the debate, Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, kept open the option of air strikes, just as the Prime Minister had done at Question Time.

Mr Hurd said air strikes might have a value as a threat to deter Bosnian Serbs from certain strategies. If defied, actual strikes might prevent those strategies being adopted and help to intensify pressure already exerted by sanctions.

But he warned that there were 'risks and uncertainties' attached to air strikes which would need to be thought through with the greatest care. 'In particular, the implications for UN forces and humanitarian agencies on the ground would need to be carefully weighed. We would not agree to action which would put British forces at risk.'

Intervening, Mr Mullin said it was clear that aggression had paid off for the Serbs. 'The only way that it isn't going to pay is if they realise that the UN is serious and is prepared to back up its case with credible force. It is, unhappily, a fact of life that only a credible force, military force on the ground, not bombing, is going to make any difference.'

But though Mr Mullin's remarks drew some approval, Mr Hurd said their premise was wrong. 'You don't secure anything serious for your children or yourselves by raising flags over ruined towns or villages.'

Paddy Ashdown, the Liberal Democrat leader, urged 'protective intervention' and the creation of safe havens. Without any change in the UN mandate, it would be possible to take under UN protection all the remaining Muslim enclaves in Bosnia.

He said the troops would not be there to assault the Serbs. 'But if they should attack us, then they will feel the full force of the response of which we are capable.'

Labour's position was restated at Question Time when Mr Smith warned that unless a clear policy was adopted to deter the Serbs, moves would be made to lift the arms embargo, merely intensifying the conflict. 'As the days and weeks go by and the Serbs continue to flout the authority of the UN, is it not increasingly clear that if the Serbs are to be stopped, they must be given an ultimatum which is backed by a credible threat to their lines of communication and supply in Bosnia?'

The acknowledged risks of limited air strikes were increasingly outweighed by the very real dangers of continued inaction, Mr Smith said.

John Major shared the Labour leader's view against lifting the arms embargo and went part way with him on air strikes. 'As I have indicated before and reiterate now, we cannot rule out further measures for maximising pressure on the Serbs. We are consulting very closely with our allies and partners.

'We do need to weigh very carefully the implications of air strikes or the removal of the arms embargo, or indeed any other proposals that may arise. . . We have to bear particularly in mind the need to sustain the humanitarian effort.'

The most unusual aspect of the debate was the repeated call for military action from Labour backbenchers. Clare Short, the MP for Birmingham Ladywood, said if the UN would not establish safe havens for Muslims then the arms embargo should be lifted so they could defend themselves. Max Madden, the MP for Bradford West, said the 'stench of appeasement' hung over the British and other European governments, while Ken Livingstone, MP for Brent East, likened Serbia's policy of 'aggrandisement' to that of Hitler in the 1930s. Troops should be sent in, he said, 'as many as it takes for as long as it takes'.

But opposing military involvement, Cyril Townsend, Conservative MP for Bexleyheath, recalled that when he was a soldier, a driver had been killed beside him. 'It behoves all of us with that background to remember that we are talking about human lives, about our constituents.'

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