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British do not want troops in a Balkan war

AT FIRST sight, public attitudes to the crisis in Bosnia seem confused. NOP's survey for the Independent on Sunday finds that most of us think Britain should commit troops to international forces to protect aid convoys and to keep the Bosnians and Serbian troops apart. But we do not think the crisis justifies putting British lives at risk, and we do not want to send in the RAF to bomb Serbian artillery positions.

NOP's poll was conducted on Friday, following a period when the fighting in Bosnia had dominated news bulletins.

On Thursday night the UN Security Council authorised the use of force, if necessary, to ensure the delivery of humanitarian aid to the starving and besieged civilians of Bosnia, and passed a second resolution demanding unimpeded access for the Red Cross to prison camps and detention entres throughout the former Yugoslavia, where civilian prisoners have been executed, tortured and otherwise abused.

On Tuesday, UN officials said at least 20,000 Bosnians, mainly Muslims, were about to be expelled to Croatia in the largest single act of Serbian 'ethnic cleansing' in the civil war.

Yet only 33 per cent of those questioned in the survey know that Sarajevo is the capital of Bosnia. Even fewer, 28 per cent, know that Serbia is the target of UN economic sanctions. (Two out of three people say they are following the crisis 'very' or 'fairly' closely; but only 39 per cent of them correctly named Bosnia's capital.)

Perhaps the most telling statistic in our poll - certainly the one that justifies Government caution before committing British forces to military action - is that only 34 per cent sympathise with Bosnia. Far fewer - 7 per cent - back Serbia. The majority of NOP's sample back neither side (26 per cent) or both (8) or say they 'don't know enough about it' (25).

These figures put public attitudes to the Bosnian crisis in a wholly different league from those at the start of the Gulf crisis two years ago. Then NOP found overwhelming support for the deployment of British troops in support of a cause that most electors understood and approved. This time there is a marked reluctance to take sides - and hence an unwillingness to back partisan military intervention.

Thus only 37 per cent agree with Paddy Ashdown that Britain should be prepared to send the RAF, in co-operation with other Western countries, to bomb Serbian artillery positions. And only 13 per cent agree with Baroness Thatcher that Britain should send weapons to Bosnia to help it fight Serbia.

The poll also uncovers widespread public anxiety about the prospect of British troops being sucked into battle. Just over half of NOP's sample agree that 'Britain should keep clear of any military action in Yugoslavia, as the situation does not justify putting British lives at risk'. A similar number want Britain to keep troops out of any fighting, 'as it would end up like Vietnam, with the fighting going on for years'.

At the same time, as many as 86 per cent do think Britain should send troops as part of a UN force to protect aid convoys; while 61 per cent back British participation in an international peace-keeping force. The popularity of these measures, it seems, flows from a belief that they involve little risk to British lives. They are supported as impartial actions by the world community to end fighting and relieve suffering.

The dilemma for John Major and the Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd, boils down to this. If they are seen to resist moves to intervene on the ground, they risk being criticised by voters here for inaction. (Twice as many people are dissatisfied as satisfied with the Government's handling of the crisis. Most of those who are dissatisfied think Britain should do more.)

Yet if we do send troops as part of a UN operation to protect aid convoys, and if that operation goes wrong, then the Government may well be blamed for sending servicemen to their deaths.

During the Falklands and Gulf wars, the public accepted some loss of life in the pursuit of a clear aim that attracted overwhelming support. NOP's findings demonstrate that, for the moment at least, no such consensus exists over the crisis in Bosnia.

NOP interviewed a representative sample of 1,072 electors face-to- face on Friday at 54 sampling points throughout Great Britain.

Leading article, page 22

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