US poised to end arms ban: Allies plead with Clinton not to give Bosnians weapons as British colonel denounces civil war

Click to follow
PRESIDENT Bill Clinton is within a day or two of deciding to commit the United States to lifting the arms embargo on Bosnia, according to senior British government sources.

Britain and France are desperately trying to persuade him to stick with the current arms embargo on all sides in the Bosnian war.

The US could go even further and decide to arm Muslim fighters itself. That could produce a crisis in British-American relations, and risk a confrontation with Russia in the UN Security Council. A further alternative being considered in Washington is an announcement soon that the administration has committed itself to a policy of air strikes.

Any of those options would cause consternation among America's allies, including Canada, France and Britain, where ministers have spoken out in the strongest terms against lifting the embargo since the idea was raised again by Baroness Thatcher.

It was not clear last night whether the frenetic behind-the-scenes attempt to change American minds was having any effect. European ministers fear that although President Clinton understands their arguments, the pressure from the American media for action in support of Bosnia is not something he is prepared to withstand, though he remains determined to avoid the use of American troops.

If the Americans press ahead it could cause serious diplomatic arguments between Nato countries, though so far all sides stress they do not wish to allow Bosnia to weaken the alliance. Malcolm Rifkind, the Secretary of State for Defence, is in the US, struggling to persuade the administration not to go to the UN with a proposal to end the embargo.

Lord Owen, the EC mediator, said yesterday that the Yugoslav crisis had reached a very dangerous moment.

In Bosnia itself, British troops from the Cheshire Regiment are trying to save Muslim refugees from the effects of fighting with Croatian forces in Vitez.

Five days after street fighting erupted between Croats and Muslims for control of this central Bosnian town, there is no sign of an end to the bloody struggle. More than 400 houses in the Muslim quarter have been destroyed by Croatian mortars positioned on the surrounding hills. A huge car bomb at the weekend in the Muslim quarter destroyed half a street and killed at least seven people.

At the United Nations barracks on the outskirts of Vitez, the headquarters of the British forces in Bosnia, dozens of terrified Muslims driven from their homes by Croat soldiers at the weekend were hanging around the barbed wire fence yesterday. More than 300 are living in five houses beside the base.

The British can do little to stem the bloodshed, though Lieutenant-Colonel Bob Stewart, their commander, said yesterday: 'We certainly aren't going to stand around and watch people being killed.' Their mandate is to transport humanitarian aid to civilians. They have used their vehicles to rescue sick and wounded civilians from the battleground in the centre of Vitez, but they are helpless to stop the fighting.

'We have seen the results of what are certainly massacres, families gunned down by murdering thugs,' Col Stewart said. He had seen 30 bodies on the streets of the town, mostly civilians. Other British soldiers have counted at least 70.

There were rampages in dozens of surrounding villages, perpetrated by Muslims as well as Croats, he added. The pattern is always the same. The majority ethnic community in each village turns on the minority, burning their houses and killing civilians indiscriminately. 'It is an absurd war and neither side is getting anything out of it,' Col Stewart said.

In Srebrenica, eastern Bosnia, General Lars-Eric Wahlgren, commander of UN peace-keeping forces in the former Yugoslavia, announced yesterday that they had completed the disarming of the Muslim defenders of the town, under the terms of the ceasefire agreed on Sunday. In Sarajevo, Barry Frewer, a UN spokesman, said that the approximately 150 Canadian peacekeepers in Srebrenica would not hesitate to defend the town and its inhabitants. 'If fire is brought there, we will return fire,' he said.

In Vitez EC-brokered talks between Muslim and Croatian army leaders led to agreement on a comprehensive ceasefire last night. But few of the refugees around the UN base expressed any confidence in it lasting. Truces and ceasefires have come and gone, but the contest for power in central Bosnia is unresolved.

Both the refugees and fighters trapped in the town centre said they had no doubt why the fighting started. One soldier said: 'The Croats are forming the borders of their state within a state inside Bosnia, which they call Herceg-Bosnia, and they want all the power for themselves.'

Leading article, letters, page 25

Dobrica Cosic, page 26

Andrew Marr, page 27

(Photograph omitted)