Bosnia crisis: US envoy Richard Holbrooke tries to patch up the Dayton deal, but sparks a row with his European partners

Holbrooke Aegean jibe angers Foreign Office
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Diplomatic Editor

The British Government yesterday rejected as "nonsense" a claim by the American special envoy Richard Holbrooke that Europe had been "asleep" during the recent territorial dispute between Greece and Turkey.

An unprecedented statement from the Foreign Office, authorised personally by the Foreign Secretary, Malcolm Rifkind, dismissed Mr Holbrooke's assertion and highlighted simmering tension between the allies over Bosnia - a division so far kept well under wraps.

"This has all been building up in the last few weeks - we felt we had to get it off our chests," a British official said.

Mr Holbrooke, an assistant US Secretary of State, brokered the Bosnia accord and was also involved in dampening down the dispute between Athens and Ankara over the Aegean islet of Imia, which brought the two Nato powers to the brink of a clash.

Yesterday the US envoy was heading back to the former Yugoslavia to try to defuse the latest crisis there, but British officials said this did not affect Mr Rifkind's decision to make a public attack on his claims.

The Washington Post quoted Mr Holbrooke as saying that President Bill Clinton had been on the telephone to Greek and Turkish leaders while "the Europeans were literally sleeping through the night". Apparently referring to Bosnia, he added that "you have to wonder why Europe does not seem capable of taking decisive action in its own theatre".

In response, the Foreign Office spokesman said: "It is nonsense to say that Europe was asleep while the US was active on the Imia dispute. While not wishing to detract from the useful American intervention, the fact was that the Foreign Secretary spoke personally to the Turkish Foreign Minister and our ambassadors in both Athens and Ankara were active throughout the night in contacting foreign ministries on his instructions."

It is understood that the Nato Secretary-General, Javier Solana, was also annoyed by Mr Holbrooke's words. Mr Solana was in telephone contact with leaders in Greece and Turkey as late as Thursday night in continued efforts to calm tensions between the two.

But the British statement made clear that irritation with Mr Holbrooke was not confined to his remarks over the Aegean dispute. There has been growing discord between elements of the US administration and the Europeans over the civilian operation to bring peace to Bosnia, headed by the High Representative Carl Bildt.