France calls for air strikes in Bosnia: Resistance from Britain and US could splinter Western alliance

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The Independent Online
FRANCE yesterday called for Nato to carry out air strikes in Bosnia, raising the pressure for a shift in Western policy.

Nato aircraft could strike ground targets within 30 minutes of being given the go-ahead from the United Nations, according to alliance sources. But they still await a decision by the UN Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, and until that comes no action can take place. At the Nato summit earlier this year the alliance reaffirmed its willingness to use air power to break the Sarajevo siege if necessary, and also said it would use measures, including aircraft, to open the airport at Tuzla and allow the rotation of troops in Srebrenica.

'It is now time for this decision to be carried out, including, if neccessary, the use of force,' said a statement from Edouard Balladur, the Prime Minister, and President Francois Mitterrand.

So far there has been no consensus within either Nato or the UN for using aircraft in this way. If France now pushes for this course of action against the wishes of its partners - in particular Britain and the US - it could open up damaging splits within the alliance and the European Union.

The collapse of negotiations has brought a collapse in Western policy and led to a reassessment of what should happen next. Officials in Brussels say policy towards Bosnia has been frozen while Nato and the EU awaited the result of national debates. There is a sense of frustration at what both institutions see as missed chances and confusion over what will fill the gap left by the policies pursued for the past two years. It still remains unclear whether Britain, France, Canada and other countries with troops on the ground will keep them in place after the winter.

UN commanders in Bosnia have said the purpose of their mission - ensuring the supply of relief - is becoming all but impossible. Policy-makers in Brussels and national capitals say the UN troops' presence may even be helping to prolong the war.

If withdrawal becomes the preferred option, alliance sources say Nato would be ready to provide air cover for what would almost certainly be a messy retreat. But they emphasise that air power alone cannot determine the outcome of the war.

Foreign ministers of the Nordic countries, with 1,300 troops in Bosnia, said yesterday they were committed to staying on. But Canada, with the third-largest contingent of 2,000 troops, is debating whether to remain.

In Paris, Mr Mitterrand chaired an inner-cabinet meeting on Bosnia yesterday as influential members of the conservative government questioned the wisdom of keeping French troops in former Yugoslavia. An adviser to Jacques Chirac, the president of the Gaullist RPR party, said it was time to withdraw French troops. Pierre Lellouche, a member of the National Assembly, and the international affairs and defence consultant to Mr Chirac, told Europe 1 radio station: 'Three years and 200,000 dead after the start of this war and with massacres continuing, I think it's important to ask why we are still there. Why are young Frenchmen being killed or wounded today?'

Mr Lellouche's remarks were the strongest made so far in favour of a withdrawal. France, with some 5,000 men in Bosnia alone, has more troops than any other country in the UN Protection Force in former Yugoslavia.

Mr Lellouche added that 'Western democracies are being ridiculed.'