France withdraws Belgrade troops

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The Independent Online
FRANCE yesterday withdrew the last of 440 troops attached to the UN Protection Force (Unprofor) near Belgrade who were feared to be targets for Serbian retaliation, diplomats said.

There were concerns that the troops, based at Pancevo near Belgrade airport, could become hostages in the event of increased international action against Serbia. The last 150 men left to join other units in Zagreb, Croatia. A logistics unit, they are being replaced by Swedish soldiers. Sweden, outside Nato, is not likely to be involved in any move by the United States or bigger European military powers to impose sanctions.

On Wednesday, Francois Leotard, the Defence Minister in the month-old centre-right government, said France was prepared to review its role in Unprofor.

'If questions as essential and simple as the definition of missions, clarity of command and adequate financing cannot be resolved, the French government will draw a certain number of conclusions from this obtuseness or obscurity coming from the organisation of the United Nations,' he told the National Assembly in Paris.

Mr Leotard's words reflected criticism by officers of the 5,000- strong French force in the former Yugoslavia, the biggest deployed there by any country. The officers are frustrated by their inability to intervene to stop fighting and by budgetary problems which are not usually the concern of the military.

Mr Leotard said France could review 'all or part' of its commitment to Unprofor. Thirty countries have sent soldiers to the 22,000-strong UN force. Britain, with roughly half the French number, has the second largest force.

'France is the only one of the great powers to be present with gendarmes on the Danube, sailors in the Adriatic, airmen in the air exclusion zone over Bosnia and foot-soldiers on the ground, both professional and conscripts,' said Mr Leotard.

The French Foreign Legion and air force control Sarajevo airport, ensuring that humanitarian aid can get into the Bosnian capital. Other French troops run humanitarian convoys in the Bihac pocket in western Bosnia or in Krajina, the Serbian enclave on the border between Bosnia and Croatia.

While Mr Leotard said the security of French soldiers was his 'daily obsession', his words were more likely to constitute an attempt to push the United Nations into a more active stance than a real threat to withdraw troops entirely.