Nato jets to protect UN in 'safe areas'

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ATHENS (Reuter) - Nato yesterday offered warplanes to defend UN troops deployed in Muslim 'safe areas' in Bosnia, but plunged once more into disarray over the conflict and over whether the air cover should extend to other UN forces.

Washington said it would send combat troops to the former Yugoslavia for the first time, deploying some 300 soldiers in the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia as part of an international force to prevent the Bosnian conflict from spreading. Britain offered a squadron of Jaguar fighter-bombers to defend UN troops deployed in the 'safe areas' in Bosnia.

'This is not an empty threat,' Manfred Worner, the Nato Secretary-General, said of the decision to use ground attack planes and bombers to defend troops in 'safe areas'. 'If we are called to strike by (UN forces) we will strike, there's no doubt.'

The flurry of initiatives at the meeting was designed to patch up divisions among the Western allies over what to do in Bosnia, following an appeal by Mr Worner for unity and leadership. But those efforts were dealt a serious blow when the US Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, said the Nato offer to use warplanes in defence of UN troops in 'safe areas' covered all UN forces in Bosnia if they were attacked and asked for help.

A statement issued after the meeting said Nato would offer air cover to the UN force 'in the performance of its overall mandate', but it was ambiguous on whether this referred only to troops in the 'safe areas'. 'It's not limited, in my view, just to the 'safe areas',' Mr Christopher said.

Britain supported that. 'It means the protection of UN forces, wherever they are in Bosnia, carrying out their mandate,' Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, told reporters. But his French counterpart, Alain Juppe, said air cover would be offered only to troops in the six Muslim enclaves.

Mr Worner, asked repeatedly to explain, declined to do so and said the alliance would have to consult the United Nations. The final statement also left unclear whether the planes would defend only UN forces or whether they would be able to defend civilians from artillery or other Bosnian Serb attacks.