US offers to send in the marines

West assembles force that can take on Serbs
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The Independent Online
President Bill Clinton yesterday said he was willing to deploy US troops in Bosnia. He said the troops, almost certainly Marines currently based on the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt and accompanying ships in the Adriatic, would assist in the relocation of United Nations peace-keepers.

At the same time, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the UN Secretary-General, recommended the Security Council either scale down the UN operation in Bosnia or replace UN troops with a multinational force.

The two developments suggested an effort by the international community to develop a credible threat of force against the Bosnian Serbs. This impression was reinforced when the Defence Secretary, Malcolm Rifkind, last night announced that British troops will take part in a new mobile Theatre Reserve Force with the capacity to counter attacks on UN forces. The Force, under the command of Brigadier Andrew Pringle, Commander of British Forces, will also be used to secure aid convoys and protect engineering projects.

Mr Clinton's earlier position was that US soldiers would be deployed only to monitor a peace agreement or assist in the withdrawal of the UN force. But yesterday he said he would consider a request from Britain and France to help redeploy UN troops inside Bosnia.

"As Commander-in-Chief, I will carefully review any request for an operation involving the temporary use of our ground forces," Mr Clinton said.

"I believe we should be prepared to assist Nato if it decides to meet a request from the United Nations troops for help in a withdrawal or in a reconfiguration and a strengthening of its forces ... We have obligations to our Nato allies and I do not believe that we can leave them in the lurch."

Mr Boutros-Ghali told the Security Council in New York there were four options facing the UN. He rejected the options of withdrawing the 22,400-strong UN Protection Force (Unprofor) or attempting to maintain the status quo. A third option, he said, called for the use of offensive action by individual states - but not under UN command.

Mr Boutros-Ghali seemed to prefer regrouping and reducing Unprofor. Under this proposal the force would negotiate agreements between the parties, deliver humanitarian aid and maintain a presence in "safe areas", but not use force to defend them. Diplomats said some combination of his recommendations, including consideration of a multinational force separate from the UN force, are more likely to be favoured by national governments.

The reserve force announced by Mr Rifkind would include an armoured infantry battalion group incorporating three companies of Warrior vehicles in first battalion Devonshire and Dorset Regiment, light Scimitar tank units in the British Cavalry Battalion and some Lynx helicopters.

Mr Rifkind said the Dutch had agreed to contribute a reinforced marine company and that the Force, which he described as a "very important initiative", would include elements of the British reinforcements including artillery batteries and an armoured engineers squadron, as well as units already in Bosnia.

In a sign of faltering Bosnian Serb intransigence, Miroslav Tolholj, the "information minister" of the rebel Bosnian Serb government, said his side was ready to talk with the international community about the almost 400 UN peace-keepers being held hostage.

"We are calling for immediate discussions and we are ready to meet representatives of the [Big Powers'] Contact Group in Pale or in Sarajevo," he said.

Mr Tolholj's announcement marked a softening of the Bosnian Serb position that talks on the hostages could begin only after the international community guaranteed no further air attacks. "For the moment they are asking us to liberate the blue helmets and that's all," he said.

"If they propose to us to sit down around a table and simultaneously talk about the freedom of the blue helmets and the security guarantees we are asking for, that's all right with us."

The Bosnian Serb offer is probably connected to fears that President Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia may recognise Bosnia.