Inside file: Above all, do not mention the war in Bosnia: There appears to be a conscious effort on the part of some Western leaders to downgrade the issue

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The Independent Online
THE image of Douglas Hurd in photochromic spectacles crossing the Danube last week, declaring: 'I spy no ships' and implying that the absence of sanctions-busting barges will end the fighting in Bosnia, indicated a trend among Western governments vis-a-vis the Yugoslav crisis: let it fade from the headlines if you can, and above all, do not mention the war.

The former Yugoslavia has been kept at the top of the news for a year because of two factors: television pictures from the front; and politicians' statements at home. It is not entirely true to say that it was only the pictures that kept the issue going. What gave the television footage its force were the statements from governments claiming that they were going to do something about it.

On the face of it, there appears to be a conscious effort on the part of Western leaders most closely implicated in the crisis to downgrade the issue and get it off the front pages. A month ago President Bill Clinton said: 'I think there is much more we can do to induce the parties to stop the fighting, to do what we can to stop this idea of ethnic cleansing, murdering people, raping children and doing terrible acts of violence solely because of people's religions. I think that the UN, the world community, can do more in that regard.'

Since the Washington accord two weeks later, which established the concept of 'safe areas' for Bosnia's Muslims, Europe and the US are adopting a strategy of saying as little as possible. Yugoslav-related meetings in Luxembourg (EC foreign ministers) and Athens (Nato foreign ministers) this week would have taken place anyway.

The only loud talking by any Westerner this week has come from one who does not represent any government - Lord Owen. Even he, understandably sore at Washington for effectively killing his peace plan, has been in the business of attacking US pusillanimity in Nato rather than discussing the situation on the ground.

President Francois Mitterrand is limiting his statesmanship to demanding the release of Vuk Draskovic, the Serbian opposition leader jailed in Belgrade. His Foreign Minister, Alain Juppe, mounts the occasional public defence of Europe's commitment, but that is because he feels duty bound to protect the 'safe areas' concept, originally a French proposal. He has also been worried about placating the Germans, miffed because they were not invited to the Washington meeting.

The US seems to have lapsed into virtual silence on the subject. Mr Clinton's perpetual talking shop notwithstanding, public statements on Bosnia are now scarce.

In London, Douglas Hurd has fought a competent rearguard action. But at his back he always hears John Major carping at him to avoid at all costs military involvement, which the Prime Minister remains convinced would be electorally suicidal. Hence the Foreign Secretary has been reduced to touring peripheral countries and holding talks with customs officials on the Danube.

A few other vignettes were to be garnered at the rather grand reception given by the Jordanian embassy on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of King Hussein's accession to the throne. Lady Thatcher, not quite the imperious figure she used to cut, was making strained small talk at one end of the ballroom. Lord Howe appeared considerably more at ease at the other, diplomatically shielded from view by the traditional carved-ice swan. It was a reminder that Mr Howe's resignation speech to parliament in 1990 - no less outspoken than Norman Lamont's valedictory yesterday - unleashed in earnest the events leading to the then prime minister's fall. To complete the trio, standing somewhere in the middle, was Michael Heseltine in full throat.

Another figure present from that era was Peter de la Billiere, the British general who helped evict the Iraqis from Kuwait in 1991. He was introduced by a fellow guest to a tall, white-haired, distinguished-looking gentleman by the name of Zuhair Ibrahim and, being an affable sort of fellow, was ready to shake hands. Until, that is, the gentleman's function had sunk in: he is the sole Iraqi diplomat left in London following the break of diplomatic relations with Britain in 1991. According to Mr Ibrahim, General de la Billiere stepped back two paces and beat a graceful retreat. 'My life here used to be terribly lonely but it is getting slightly better now,' said Mr Ibrahim, whose Iraqi interests section is protected by the Jordanian embassy.

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