US envoy goes to ground over arming Bosnia's Muslims

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THE controversy over calls to arm Bosnia's Muslims deepened yesterday as Reginald Bartholomew, the US envoy who has repeatedly suggested an eventual lifting of the arms embargo, arrived in London for talks.

John Major told the Commons he opposed lifting the ban, while Mr Bartholomew cancelled all meetings with British journalists to avoid having to side openly with Baroness Thatcher's call this week to arm the Muslims.

Responding to a question in the House, the Prime Minister said: 'I share the view . . . expressed about the need to damp down and not increase the supply of arms.' Downing Street sources said later Mr Major was not closing the option of air strikes on Serbian ground targets in Bosnia.

In Washington, the US Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, tried to minimise the embarrassment by describing Lady Thatcher's comments as 'an emotional response to an emotional problem'. On the question of direct military intervention - also advocated by Lady Thatcher - he said: 'We think that the use of ground troops, the use of American force, is not the solution to that problem at the present time.'

Lord Owen, the EC mediator, warned after meeting Mr Bartholomew that Russia would probably arm the Serbs if the embargo on the Muslims was lifted. 'The danger is that you will unleash . . . sophisticated armaments if the Russians supply Serbs.'

Mr Bartholomew, who has just completed a tour of the former Yugoslav republics, met Lord Owen, Malcolm Rifkind, the Defence Secretary, and Douglas Hogg, the Foreign Office minister. Having ended up on Lady Thatcher's side of the argument, admitting that publicly would be an admission that the US policy clashed with that of Mr Major. Disagreeing with her would be an admission that the US call to lift the embargo was a tactical ploy.

Mr Bartholomew said in Zagreb two days ago that if the Bosnian Serbs continued to refuse to sign the Owen-Vance peace plan, the US would work to lift the embargo. A diplomatic source detected three objectives behind the US stance: to maintain pressure on the Serbs; to satisfy domestic public opinion; and to 'fly a kite to get the other allies - primarily Britain and France - used to the idea'. He added that Britain would reinforce to Mr Bartholomew that 'it genuinely believed lifting the embargo would cause more killing' and that the Russians had in any case made it 'perfectly clear' that they would block any move by the UN Security Council to lift it.

The Russian ambassador, Yuli Vorosontov, said his country would vote for further sanctions against Serbia after the Russian referendum on 25 April and drop the original request for a 15-day delay.