The commanders' remarks this week prompted a furious complaint to the United Nations from its US ambassador, Madeleine Albright, who accused them of belittling US policy and undermining the potential effectiveness of air strikes against the Serbs.
Ms Albright was particularly incensed by remarks attributed to the British chief of staff of the UN forces in Bosnia, Brigadier Vere Hayes. He was quoted demanding to know what President Clinton 'thinks he's up to', and declaring that 'air power won't defeat the Serbs'. The ambassador fired back, saying it was 'unconscionable for UN officers to question a president of the United States'.
Some of the heat went out of the issue yesterday when Ms Albright said she had registered her complaint with the UN Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali. She said she was 'satisfied' that the US position was 'accepted', and stopped short of calling for the officers to be reprimanded or fired. US officials later made clear that they are anxious to close the affair.
The quarrel, which has exposed the growing frustration among the allies and UN commanders over how to handle the Bosnian crisis, was also fuelled by comments made by the UN commander in Bosnia, Lieutenant General Francis Briquemont, who is Belgian, and by Commander Barry Frewer, the UN force spokesman and a Canadian.
But Cdr Frewer and Brig Hayes incurred particular US indignation by suggesting that Sarajevo was no longer under siege by Bosnian Serbs, but (in Cdr Frewer's words) was merely 'encircled'. They also questioned whether the threat of air strikes by Nato and the US had much to do with the Serbs' decision to withdraw from their two mountain positions around Sarajevo.
It was a view which the US vigorously disputes. 'There is no doubt that the threat of US air strikes was a major factor, perhaps the deciding factor, in the Bosnian Serb decision to withdraw most of their troops from the two mountains,' said a US statement released on Tuesday.
The row has coincided with reports in Washington, from anonymous US State Department sources, that President Clinton is considering issuing an executive order that would open the way for US troops to serve under foreign commanders in UN peace-keeping operations - an arrangement that has not been in force since the Second World War but which, in the light of the present tensions, does not seem destined to work.
The Foreign Office trod a careful line between expressing sympathy with Brig Hayes's views and stressing his responsiblity was to the UN, not the British government.
'This perceived row is one for the UN and the US,' said a British diplomat. 'Brigadier Hayes is a British army officer serving with (UN forces) and we have every confidence in the brigadier's capacity to carry out his duties for the UN.'
The diplomat added: 'We are concerned the language has got to such a heated level, but don't think entering a row about words is something we should be doing.'Reuse content