British troops ordered to arrest war criminals

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Diplomatic Editor

British troops in Bosnia will detain the Bosnian Serb leaders Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic if the opportunity arises, the Armed Forces Minister, Nicholas Soames, confirmed yesterday.

Mr Soames said British soldiers were under orders to apprehend any of the 52 individuals sought by the United Nations international war crimes tribunal but would not seek them out. "If they bump into them at a checkpoint they will want to detain them," he said. He also reiterated that British forces would provide escorts for war crimes investigators who may want to explore the sites of suspected mass graves in Serb-controlled areas.

Mr Soames was speaking as the Ministry of Defence announced that deployment of 13,000 British service personnel would be completed on schedule by tomorrow. The warring parties are expected to fulfil their pledge to withdraw from the battlefield "confrontation lines" by the same date.

The Nato peace-keeping mission has thus reached its first 30- day deadline to the apparent satisfaction of the governments supplying troops to the 36,000-strong force, known as I-For. The Nato peace-keepers have set up a local radio station to promote their cause and they are publishing a Serbo-Croat language newspaper - called The Herald of Peace - to get their message across to the population.

Mr Soames said Britain was committed to exercise a "central influence" over the resolution of the Yugoslav conflict but would not keep its forces there beyond the planned limit of next December.

"The mission is for 12 months. We went in with the Americans. We will go out with the Americans. We remain confident that the mission will be achieved within 12 months," Mr Soames said.

But Mr Soames admitted that formidable political and military problems could lie ahead. Clearly distancing Britain from the US intention to train and arm the forces of the Bosnian government, he said "neither Nato nor any contingent in I-For will arm and train the Bosnian forces". The British government would not be party to any such project. "It's not on," Mr Soames said.

"There is a need for realism," the minister added. He said freedom of movement for civilians remained an important issue, saying that interference by gunmen at illegal checkpoints "will not be tolerated". Western officials are also concerned that the existing Bosnian government and the Croat political entity in Bosnia will not dissolve themselves, as planned, to re-form under the new political arrangements envisaged by the Dayton peace accords.

Fears about the activities of Islamic mujahedin fighters allied to the Bosnian government seem to have eased, according to Brigadier John Reith, the Director of Military Operations. "We have no reports of mujahedin in our sector and my understanding is that by and large they have withdrawn from the country," Brigadier Reith said.

Under the terms of the Dayton accords all foreign elements were to have left Bosnia by 13 January, although Brigadier Reith conceded that some of the mujahedin may have adopted Bosnian nationality or intermarried.

None the less, both ministers and armed forces chiefs are at pains to represent the initial deployment as an almost unqualified success. Brigadier Reith said there had been some friction between troop contributing nations as forces were "rebalanced" by the Supreme Allied Commander Europe (Saceur), General George Joulwan. A Malaysian contingent had been unwilling to transfer to the British sector until ordered to, while funding and logistics problems had prevented Pakistan from sending men.

The next scheduled test of I-For's mission - "crunch time", Brigadier Reith called it - will come in mid-April, 120 days after the mission began. By then the armed forces of Muslim, Serb and Croat factions should have withdrawn to barracks.