Carrier heads for Adriatic

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE CARRIER Clemenceau set sail from Toulon yesterday to protect French troops in the UN Protection Force (Unprofor) in Bosnia and Croatia.

Accompanied by two anti-aircraft frigates and one anti-submarine vessel, the Clemenceau was dispatched after two French soldiers were killed by artillery shells when Croatian forces started an offensive to retake positions in the Serbian enclave of Krajina last weekend. As the ships left port Pierre Joxe, the Defence Minister, said France could not tolerate seeing soldiers on a peace mission becoming targets. Eleven French soldiers have died in what was Yugoslavia in almost a year of peace-keeping efforts.

In the Adriatic the Clemenceau will join the Royal Navy's Ark Royal, sent to the area to provide similar support for British troops. The Clemenceau was carrying 25 Super-Etendard and Crusader fighters and 15 missile- armed helicopters. Earlier this week, the Defence Ministry said the 4,800 French soldiers in the UN force would receive extra artillery to protect themselves. The carrier group is expected to arrive in the Adriatic on Monday.

While the mission is officially to protect French forces, the additional weaponry could be used to cover an eventual evacuation, military analysts said. With the international community dithering over whether to intervene in Bosnia, the UN forces, according to several officers on the ground, could become hostages or targets if external action is forthcoming.

Troops escorting aid convoys in and around Sarajevo are particularly vulnerable. To evacuate, they would have to push south about 80 miles towards the sea. The new weaponry and planes could be used to cover them. Other French forces in western Bosnia are also blocked inland. Any attempt to move past well-armed and hostile militias would risk heavy casualties.

Officers in the UN forces openly discuss the possibility of evacuation. One British officer in a UN observer mission monitoring the fighting said in Bosnia last week that the UN had plans to start an evacuation at two hours' notice. A senior French officer in Sarajevo added: 'We are like hostages here and if we have to leave, we have several plans.'

(Photograph omitted)