BOSNIA CRISIS: DIPLOMACY: US and Britain ponder reaction to Chirac plan

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The Independent Online
The British and US governments considered urgent responses yesterday to France's request for military support in protecting Muslim "safe areas" in Bosnia. The chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, General John Shalikashvili, convened a meeting in Washington to discuss whether to offer air cover and helicopter support, as requested by France's Defence Minister, Charles Millon.

British officials said John Major was in contact with the French President, Jacques Chirac, over how to help Bosnia's five remaining "safe areas" after the fall of the Srebrenica enclave to the Bosnian Serbs last Tuesday. The most vulnerable area, Zepa in eastern Bosnia, was under Bosnian Serb attack yesterday, but military sources said there were ways of helping the other four, including Gorazde, where a contingent of British United Nations troops is not due to finish its tour of duty until September.

London and Washington listened with sympathy but some scepticism to Mr Chirac's stirring words yesterday, when he portrayed France as defender of Western honour. Officials said France's policy on Bosnia was closer to that of Britain and the United States than the President had suggested.

But Mr Chirac's remarks did contain one fundamental proposal - opening a land supply route to besieged Sarajevo - with which the US and British governments already agreed. However, Mr Major has been more cautious than Mr Chirac about blasting open an aid route by military force.

For its part, the Clinton administration accepts Mr Chirac's analysis that the UN mission needs to be more forceful in approach and clear in its objectives in order to perform a meaningful role. White House officials pointed out that President Bill Clinton had spoken to Mr Chirac on Thursday, and the two men shared the view that UN forces should stay in Bosnia.

However, there are obvious disagreements between France and the US Congress, where Senator Robert Dole and others are pushing for a UN withdrawal from Bosnia, followed by an end to the arms embargo on the Muslim-led Bosnian government. France, like Britain, thinks this approach irresponsible.

One important dispute between France and the United States remains the same as before: the US refusal to send troops to Bosnia unless to assist in withdrawing the UN peace-keepers or to patrol a negotiated settlement. Asked if Mr Clinton had changed the conditions governing the deployment of US troops, a White House spokesman, Mike McCurry, said: "No, they remain the same."

British officials said that, up to Thursday evening, the French government had not providedprecise details of how it proposed to improve the protection of the Muslim "safe areas".