Faced with warnings of hardship and death in the bitter Balkan winter, the UN intends to increase its military presence in Bosnia and save civilian lives by ensuring the delivery of 5,000 tons of humanitarian aid a week. The plan came less than 24 hours after the UN accused Bosnian Muslim forces of killing two French soldiers in an ambush.
The lightly armed UN soldiers have no authority to pursue those who attack them. Their rules of engagement allow them to shoot only if fired on, and use force only in extremis, if their mission is obstructed.
Despite the misgivings of the UN peacekeeping division, the organisation is expected to press ahead with the deployment of troops from Britain, Canada, Spain, France and possibly Italy. The countries will pay about dollars 35m ( pounds 17.8m) a year for each battalion. About 6,500 troops and support personnel will be deployed on top of the 1,500 already in Sarajevo. The troops will be based at 11 places in Bosnia, including Banja Luka, Bihac, Mostar, Gorazde and Tulza. They will protect overland aid convoys being delivered by the UN High Commission for Refugees.
In a separate move, the UN is expected to ban military flights over Bosnia, thus grounding Serbian aircraft which have been accused of strafing villages and towns. The UN is not threatening to shoot Serbian aircraft from the sky, as the allies are doing in southern Iraq, but is expected to mount aerial surveillance.
The 1,800-strong British reinforced infantry battalion group remains on standby, awaiting a UN request. It is centred on an armoured infantry battalion of the Cheshire Regiment, with 45 Warrior infantry fighting vehicles, plus a squadron of the 9th/12th Lancers with Scimitar light tanks for armoured reconaissance and 35 Engineer Regiment, plus a large logistic support group.
All these forces are based in Germany. The army always planned to send a force that 'could look after itself when cornered', and the battalion group looks robust enough. However if drawn further into a battle it might need artillery support and this question was on the mind of army planners last night.
Paddy Ashdown, the Liberal Democrat leader, yesterday criticised the UN as 'always behind events, always acting too little, too late'. He warned: 'We will pay a very heavy price if we go on acting in Bosnia with such uncertainty and such indecision.'
Meanwhile Cyrus Vance and Lord Owen, joint chairmen of the UN-European Community peace initiative, said after visiting Sarajevo yesterday that they had won agreement from leaders of the three warring factions to attend talks in Geneva next week.
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