Consensus on Bosnia eludes EC ministers: US debate and British 'no-cost' initiative bring air strikes closer

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EC foreign ministers were angry yesterday that they had been manoeuvred into apparent endorsement of air strikes in Bosnia. Their informal gathering at Hindsgavl castle in Denmark was dominated by US discussions of the next step in Bosnia, and by a British initiative that could include the use of air power against Bosnian Serb targets.

The Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd, confirmed that the Ministry of Defence had offered assurances to Canada following fears that its troops in Srebrenica might come under heavy assault. 'If the Canadians come under that kind of attack, we would do our best to help,' he said. There were 'assets' in the areas, including aircraft at Bari in Italy and on ships in the Adriatic, British officials confirmed. Downing Street sources were making it known that they were leaning towards air strikes, partly because Britain considers air strikes a 'least worst' case.

The United States has still not publicly made clear what options it prefers if attempts to impose pressure on the Bosnian Serbs are to be toughened. In this sense, Britain is now out ahead of the Americans at no cost. Its plan in fact adds little, since it was always likely that other forces would support the Canadians. And, as Douglas Hurd admitted, they are in no imminent danger. But it sent, and was intended to send, a signal to Washington and the Bosnian Serbs. The EC ministers emphasised in their post- summit statement that sanctions are still the main element of their attempt to force Bosnian Serbs to accept the Vance-Owen peace plan. New UN sanctions come into force today: the EC is to double the number of sanctions monitors and will consider additional measures.

But this seemed limp in comparison with the debate in Washington. It was also overshadowed by the British move, which was unilateral, does not need any further UN action, and is in support of a Nato ally. The EC statement emphasised that no options were excluded, but eschewed any direct reference to military options, leaving the Europeans again apparently divided and uncertain.

Alain Juppe, the French Foreign Minister, said it was likely to be weeks before it could be said whether sanctions had worked. He said that there was a 'consensus' that the US idea of lifting the arms embargo on Bosnian Muslims was not a good idea. Britain and France, both Security Council members, seemed to be moving together on the issue. Warren Christopher, the US Secretary of State, will probably tour European capitals this week to consult the allies on his decisions. He is also due to meet EC foreign ministers on or about 9 June, before Nato ministers meet in Athens. It is unlikely that final decisions will be made before then, according to one European source. Mr Hurd emphasised that there were a number of practical considerations on air strikes: how to protect UN troops, the legal base for any action and the protection of civilians.

There will also have to be discussions with Russia. All of this seemed premature and irritating to many ministers. Dick Spring, the Irish Foreign Minister, spoke for many of them when he said that 'military action does not mean a military solution'. The Irish have proposed for Bosnia a version of the 'safe havens' that were used in northern Iraq; a no- fly zone is already in place. The President of the Council, Denmark's Niels Helveg Petersen, was even gloomier. 'I am profoundly apprehensive about military activities,' he said.

Klaus Kinkel, the German Foreign Minister, was said by one of his colleagues to have been privately scathing about Britain and France, two Security Council powers, accusing them of 'playing games'. Only Germany supported the idea of lifting the arms embargo on Bosnian Muslims.

Jacques Delors, the Commission's President, hardly spoke at the press conference after the meeting, except to say that Council 'discipline' meant that there was not much he could say. There could be no greater demonstration of the truth of a paper prepared by the Commission, which lamented that Europe was a long way from being a superpower and remained in the shadow of the US.