'Ark Royal' sets off to stand by in Adriatic

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The Independent Online
SENIOR Conservative MPs yesterday delivered a warning against any further involvement of British forces on the ground in Bosnia as Malcolm Rifkind, Secretary of State for Defence, announced the dispatch of an air support group, including HMS Ark Royal, to the Adriatic.

On board, a force of 329 soldiers - artillery and target-locating troops - will be ready to reinforce British troops in Bosnia if needed. The carrier also fields eight Harrier jump jets and 11 Sea King helicopters.

The 2,500 British troops already helping to deliver aid in Bosnia are under United Nations control, wearing the UN blue beret. The amphibious force which set sail yesterday will be under British national command, wearing dark blue or commando green berets. Another 89 specialist troops on board will move directly into Bosnia to prepare for the arrival of British reinforcements.

Announcing the deployment, Mr Rifkind said: 'We hope that those deployed on Ark Royal may not be deployed in Bosnia itself.' The troops would stand by offshore, he said, because it would be unacceptable if they were suddenly needed and took two weeks to get there. In an emergency, he said, they would go in - without UN orders - to help British UN troops. Mr Rifkind said the carrier's presence was meant to send a signal to the warring factions, to 'show we can defend ourselves in a very impressive way'.

Mr Rifkind told Parliament the Ministry of Defence was also making arrangements for the possible move of other units at short notice. Jaguar strike aircraft and Tornado F3 fighters would be made available if needed.

Mr Rifkind has repeatedly distinguished between the forces needed to enforce an air exclusion zone announced by the UN, and those required further to guarantee the security of British troops, whatever the UN decides. The Harriers will be useful in both roles. 'None of this marks any change in our policy in the area,' Mr Rifkind said. 'The forces will be used to increase the protection we provide for our existing battle group as it carries out its humanitarian role.'

But some MPs voiced an unease that British forces were being sucked deeper into the conflict. Sir Peter Tapsell, Conservative MP for East Lindsey, drew a comparison with Vietnam. Peter Viggers, Conservative MP for Gosport said troops could not perform a humanitarian role if it had to be done with the support of air strikes and field artillery. 'If the Cabinet commits further troops for use in Bosnia, it will not have the support of many Conservative MPs.'

(Photograph omitted)