But as the first aircraft began arriving in Italy, sources at Nato's Brussels headquarters said a last-minute dispute had erupted between France and the US over when and how the fighters would be authorised to shoot violators down.
Four Dutch F-16 fighters and 14 French Mirage interceptors and reconnaissance planes flew to Italian bases as the first contingent of the force expected to begin patrolling the Bosnian skies by next week, officials said.
Among the outstanding questions was whether and at what point allied pilots would be authorised to shoot down violators of the flight ban. Sources said France was maintaining that a further green light was needed from the UN for action against violators, while the US pushed a more flexible approach.
The Defence Secretary, Malcolm Rifkind, said yesterday Britain had offered six Tornados plus air-to-air refuelling tankers. 'However,' he said, 'I am pleased to say that there are a number of potential contributors to the operation and it is for Nato to decide which nations should take part and when. At present it seems likely that the initial deployment will not include British Tornados.'
Last night Nato's North Atlantic Council was meeting to consider the plan put forward by Nato's Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe in consultation with Southern European Command. Nato spokesmen were surprised by the British announcement, insisting that no final decision had been made.
On Tuesday, Nato's Supreme Allied Commander Europe, US General John Shalikashvili, indicated the air wing would comprise about 70 planes. The Dutch offered 12 F-16Bs and six reconnaissance aircraft. Fourteen French Mirages were reported to have flown to Cervia in northern Italy last night.
The Nato decision is not a surprise. The Tornado F-3 is designed to fly high over the North Sea or - as proved in 1991 - the desert, spying on and destroying hostile aircraft at great range. The RAF has no 'agile fighter'; the new Eurofighter will fill this gap from the end of the century.
General Shalikashvili confirmed that all the US aircraft would come from US European Command but declined to say what the precise balance would be.
Mr Rifkind drew attention to the contribution already made by the British. RAF Hercules transport aircraft have now flown 417 sorties carrying 6,000 tons of supplies, and Britain also provides a Sentry early warning aircraft, plus 2,300 troops on the ground escorting aid into Bosnia.
In Bonn, the Nato Secretary-General, Manfred Worner, yesterday told Germany's constitutional court German participation in the enforcement of the no-fly zone in Bosnia was 'decisive'. The German Defence Minister, Volker Ruhe, talked, too, of a 'necessary and decisive political signal'.
In a contorted political manoeuvre, the government has, in effect, taken itself to court over whether German crews should be allowed to fly Awacs radar-monitoring and control planes in former Yugoslavia. Without the German crews, Mr Worner warned, 'things would go badly'.
In The Hague, the International Court of Justice will rule today in the case brought by Bosnia against the rump Yugoslavia for breaching conventions against genocide, with Bosnia demanding the right to defend itself and to request help from foreign countries.
Bosnia has asked the court to grant urgent measures to stop the blood-letting in Serb-held parts of Bosnia and enable the Sarajevo government to get military help from abroad including weapons and manpower.
At the United Nations in New York, the Security Council approved Macedonia's application for UN membership yesterday, setting up a mediation effort over Greek objections to the former Yugoslav republic's name and flag.
Under a compromise worked out with Greece, the new country was admitted under the provisional name 'The Former Yugoslav Province of Macedonia'. Negotiators will choose a new name.
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