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Britain hits back at US over Bosnia policy attack: Clinton's call for lifting of arms embargo is labelled short-sighted

BRITISH officials yesterday reacted with resigned irritation to what they said was a short-sighted attack by President Bill Clinton on his European allies over policy on Bosnia.

'What it betrays is the character of the man, which is a tendency to blame others when things get difficult and to have no understanding of the consequences of his statements,' said one insider. 'But at the same time, we don't propose doing anything about it.'

'People here had few illusions about him as a statesman as it was. But if they had any at all left, they don't now. He's like a little child, saying 'I'm not guilty'.'

He was reacting to an interview in which Mr Clinton said he 'had the feeling that the British and French felt it was more important to avoid lifting the arms embargo' on Bosnia's Muslims 'than to save the country' and the disclosure that 'John Major told me he wasn't sure he could sustain his government' if he agreed to lift the embargo.

The United States Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, said in another interview that 'Western Europe is no longer the dominant area of the world'.

'If you know anything about British politics, you know that there cannot be anything more counter-productive than to allude to the weakness of Major's cabinet,' said a Whitehall source. 'Plus which, he is heaping abuse on Europe when the Gatt negotiations are at their most delicate stage and stirring it up at a crucial time for Nato - just as the French are expected to come up with anti-American, anti- Nato sentiment.'

Downing Street officials said Mr Major had been trying to get across to the President that it was the whole of the British government that opposed lifting the arms embargo. 'No other policy would have the support of the Cabinet,' said a source. Another added: 'We've got troops on the ground. The Americans haven't'

The Prime Minister's office said that in a 'mature relationship' there were bound to be disagreements, such as those over Bosnia, but there were large areas of agreement, including US policy on Nato and Iraq.

Foreign Office sources said the US had underlined continued commitment to Europe by guaranteeing the deployment of more troops than expected in Europe.

Mr Clinton's remarks came before a key Nato defence ministers' meeting in Germany next week to prepare for the alliance summit in January. Nato's Secretary-General, Manfred Worner, said he did not think that 'finger-pointing' across the Atlantic solved any problems.

Mr Worner said that he could see no sign that the US was turning isolationist and preparing to withdraw from its commitments to defend Europe.

Britain and France, as permanent members of the UN Security Council, have used their position to bring along the rest of the European community in fending off US calls to lift the arms embargo or conduct air strikes against Serbian positions. France, which has anything but a 'special relationship' with the US, brushed off yesterday's criticism while issuing a reminder that the US helped to formulate the policy on Bosnia.

'Our position has always been to favour a negotiated settlement between the parties, incompatible with the lifting of the arms embargo, while calling for a reinforced ground and air presence in the most threatened zones,' said a Foreign Ministry spokesman.

'This policy was adopted jointly in Washington on 22 May with the agreement of the United States together with Britain, Spain and Russia.'

He added:'We have several times indicated that we believed a US military presence on the ground was desirable.'