West steps up military challenge to Serbs

British troops bolster 'rapid reaction force' to protect UN peacekeeper s
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THE West yesterday threw down the gauntlet in Bosnia, unveiling plans for a new 10,000-strong quick reaction force to protect UN peacekeepers. As efforts continued to free the hostages, a meeting of 15 defence ministers from EU and Nato states in Paris decided to step up support for the Bosnia mission.

"What is required is enhanced protection for the UN force," said Malcolm Rifkind, Secretary of State for Defence. "If attacked the right of self- defence is a paramount." But he emphasised: "We are not being dragged into the Bosnia war."

Two new brigades will be formed by the end of June to back up the peacekeepers. One 5,000-strong unit will be made up of Britain's Devonshire and Dorset regiments alongside French and Dutch troops. The other will consist of Britain's 24 Airmobile Brigade. It will hit back if the UN is attacked, help to regroup isolated units, support the besieged UN enclaves in eastern Bosnia, help resupply peacekeepers and toughen the implementation of weapons- free zones around Sarajevo and other cities.

"This is the first time in the history of UN forces in the last 40 years that such a force has been created," said Mr Rifkind. The new force will come under the UN's operational control but, in line with its more robust mission, it will not wear blue helmets but will fight in national uniforms.

The Paris announcement came as the President of Serbia, Slobodan Milosevic, attempted to assert his authority over the Bosnian Serbs, ordering them to release the remaining 257 UN peacekeepers they hold hostage. The Serbs had earlier released more than 100 hostages, among them 11 Britons, but Mr Milosevic's command was a direct challenge to Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb leader, to cease his defiance of the West.

In a further indication of Mr Milosevic's shifting position, the hardline Serbian nationalist leader, Vojislav Seselj, was arrested during a rally in the southern Serbian town of Gnjilane, along with the entire leadership of his Serbian Radical Party. Mr Seselj, once an ally of Mr Milosevic, has turned into his most bitter critic over what he sees as the betrayal of Serb brethren in Bosnia and Croatia.

Nine of the freed British hostages were yesterday released into British custody in Split. The two others were in hospital in Zagreb but not believed to be seriously ill. Besides the 11 Britons of the Royal Welch Fusiliers, there were 63 French and 41 Canadian peacekeepers and six military observers. Ivor Roberts, the British charge d'affaires in Belgrade, travelled to Novi Sad to greet the men, and saw the nine Britons who were in good health. "It's fabulous news really, it's brilliant, but it's said with reservation - there are still 22 there," said Captain Des Williams, a Fusilier based in Sarajevo. "We'll hold our breath till the other 22 get out and then sigh with relief."

The new force represents a decisive step up in the UN's efforts in Bosnia in the face of Bosnian Serb attacks and hostage-taking. It is also a move by Britain and France, the two states with most troops in Bosnia already, to increase their commitment and take more control of the peacekeeping operation.

The US will provide attack helicopters, air transport, material such as night-fighting equipment and intelligence. But it will not send ground forces, said William Perry, US Defense Secretary. Earlier in the week President Bill Clinton had hinted that such a move might take place but Congressional reaction seems to have forced him to step back.

Although they released some of the hostages, the Bosnian Serbs were showing no signs of doveishness yesterday. A force of 65 Serb soldiers backed by a tank attacked a Dutch UN observation post in Srebrenica, forcing a UN withdrawal from the position. And UN officials confirmed that Serbs fired two missiles at Nato jets flying over Sarajevo on Friday, the day they downed a US F-16 near the northern city of Banja Luka.

The Bosnian Serb commander, General Ratko Mladic, told the UN his men were holding the American pilot, but Nato is sceptical and still conducting a search and rescue mission.