Nato divided on use of Bosnia air strikes

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THE divisions in Nato over the use of air strikes in Bosnia re-emerged yesterday. The United States is pressing for faster, tougher action against violations of the weapons exclusion zones, but some member states have reservations.

The issue has arisen again because attempts to use air power to enforce the weapons exclusion zones in Bosnia, such as the one around Sarajevo, have run into problems with the United Nations. The alliance, and particularly the US, is keen to act but feels that the UN - and especially the commanders on the ground, including General Michael Rose, are blocking effective action.

Nato has gone to the lengths of sending a letter to the UN seeking better relations but a meeting in Bosnia between Nato and UN military authorities achieved little. Nato feels that the UN resists action, is slow to respond when it is decided upon, and limits attacks to purely symbolic targets, such as empty tanks. It is concerned that its credibility is being eroded. However, individual Nato members with troops on the ground have in the past resisted tougher action because of concerns about saefty.

Ambassadors met this week to discuss sending a letter to Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the UN Secretary-General, but were unable to agree because one member state wanted to consult with his government. They are also discussing a proposal that would reduce the involvement of UN commanders in air strikes. They met again yesterday but were still unable to agree, and will meet again today. 'Some ambassadors feel they have to consult with national capitals again,' said a Nato source, partly because there are new proposals on the table.

Britain says that it backs more 'more efficient and vigorous' action in Bosnia, and officials say that the problems are in part due to General Rose. But they emphasise that there is full backing for him and that he will serve out his full term in Bosnia. They would not say what improvements they thought were desirable to the present regime, and would resist any attempt to sideline the UN military authorities.

The proposals discussed by Nato would reduce the say that UN field commanders have over air strikes. It would involve agreeing in advance with the UN in New York what counted as a violation and what sort of response would be proportionate. There would be a menu of options, with the UN role reduced to choosing one rather than engaging in protracted discussions about how to respond.

British sources say that there have been large policy differences with the Americans in the past over lifting the arms embargo on the Bosnian Muslims. A full-scale trans-Atlantic rift has now been avoided as the Bosnian government has put off the issue for six months. But British sources say they want to use the intervening period to ensure 'that we are not in the same bind next March'. The US wants tougher action, partly to reduce the pressure in Congress for lifting the arms embargo. Britain and France (the main two troop contributors in Bosnia) agree with this in principle, but it remains to be seen how far they are prepared to go.