Parliament and Politics: Hurd rejects role for the RAF in Bosnia air-drops

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DOUGLAS HURD yesterday ruled out RAF aircraft taking part in the air-drops into eastern Bosnia that are being considered by the United States.

Though the Foreign Secretary said the Government would welcome US air-drops if they brought humanitarian aid to people that the British and French had not been able to reach by land, other MPs were critical of the US plan.

Jack Cunningham, Labour's foreign affairs spokesman, said that the Commons would need convincing air-drops would not lead to the Serbs disrupting land convoys or put British forces at risk. Aid workers in Bosnia did not think it 'a very sensible idea'.

David Howell, Tory chairman of the Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee, warned against blurring aid work and military intervention. Serbs would view air drops as potentially hostile acts. 'This is a dangerous further move that needs to be considered very, very carefully indeed . . . We are seeing humanitarian relief, and the desire to deliver it, gradually move into military commitment.'

Opening a Commons debate on international peacekeeping, Mr Hurd condemned 'comments from abroad' which assumed that nothing was being done to relieve the suffering. He singled out a leading article in Monday's New York Times which claimed that the United Nations High Commission for Refugees had suspended 'all shipments to Bosnia' when the relief effort had continued throughout, and that 'all along the supplies have not been reaching those most desperately in need'. The editoral went on: 'The lives of thousands of Bosnians are at stake. Decency requires that America and the world provide prompt relief.'

But Mr Hurd said: 'Such ignorance of what has actually been happening warps the understanding of the public.' For months, Europe, with Britain in the forefront, had been providing prompt relief, saving the lives of tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands. It was estimated that 2,000 to 3,000 people had died in Bosnia from lack of food or heat, an 'appalling waste' but nothing like the 300,000 deaths predicted last autumn.

'We believe, for our part, we are doing our bit, successfully and over a long period, by land. And, therefore, we do not have the intention of using RAF planes for this particular exercise by air, although we welcome the intention of the Americans to do so.' Mr Hurd emphasised that John Major would be discussing the proposal with President Clinton in Washington today.

He firmly rejected a partial lifting of the arms embargo to enable weapons to be supplied to Bosnian Muslims - a possibility considered by the US. It was incompatible with the humanitarian effort, it would be easy for weapons to go astray, and the traditional friends of Serbia - Russia - would re-arm the Serbs. Mr Hurd added . . . 'The only certain result is more bloodshed.'

Mr Cunningham questioned the practicability of dropping aid from 12,000 feet. Representatives of the Serbs and others said, 'perhaps dishonestly', they would feel threatened that the drops may contain arms and they might disrupt the aid on the ground. 'If there is no alternative to dropping aid from several thousand feet, and otherwise people would starve to death, then of course it will have to be tried. But we do need convincing that . . . it will not damage the existing efforts taking place on the ground.'

Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrats' defence spokesman, said aircraft would be at risk from portable surface-to-air missiles. Outside the chamber he said the Clinton plan was 'a gimmick more suited to the campaign trail . . .' White House talks, page 9