Nato plans limited 6,000-strong Bosnia force

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NATO plans to send a small force of 6,000 troops to protect humanitarian aid convoys into Bosnia, Brussels sources said yesterday. Ambitious schemes to send up to 100,000 troops to secure wide corridors for relief supplies, and a 'medium-sized option' calling for 20,000 or 30,000 troops have been rejected in favour of a limited operation compatible with Britain's offer of up to 1,800 troops. France is willing to dispatch a contingent of 1,100 soldiers, backed by helicopters and light armoured vehicles.

Ambassadors from Nato's 16 members meet today to consider the plans. So far, Britain, France, Spain, Turkey and Italy have offered troops to support relief missions into Bosnia. The United Nations Security Council authorised military action to provide aid to Bosnia on 13 August.

Meanwhile, British troops from Germany are awaiting orders to move to Bosnia soon after tomorrow's London conference - assuming the UN accepts the British offer to help protect supply convoys. The reconnaissance party could move within hours of the UN accepting the offer and giving the British a task.

At the weekend the Army confirmed that the Cheshire Regiment, based in Fallingbostel, 35 Engineer Regiment from Hameln and the 9th/12th Royal Lancers from Hereford, plus a number of supporting troops, were on short notice to move if required.

The Ministry of Defence has offered a force of 1,800 soldiers in 400-plus vehicles. It is a reinforced battle group centred on the Cheshires, an armoured infantry battalion with 45 Warrior infantry fighting vehicles. The battle group would be specially tailored for its job, with a strong contingent of Royal Engineers to repair or clear roads and deal with mines. It also includes a composite 'national support element' with 8- and 4-tonne trucks and fuel tankers, but no anti-aircraft missiles, artillery or, mortar-locating radars. The Cheshires are part of 7th Armoured Brigade, but were not deployed as a formed unit to the Gulf with the others in the brigade. However, a number of soldiers from the Cheshire Regiment were drafted in to reinforce other units in operation Desert Sabre, the British ground offensive, and would go to Bosnia with battle experience.

Army sources indicated that the battle group will not necessarily be used to protect supplies on the route from Split, on the Adriatic coast, to Sarajevo. It may be based in Zagreb alongside the UK medical unit already deployed and patrol routes into Bosnia from the north. It may move by rail from Germany to Croatia. Other routes might be patrolled by Italian, German and Dutch forces

The 9th/12th Lancers are equipped with 16 Scimitar light tanks, armed with the same 30mm Rarden cannon as the Warrior. They are an armoured reconnaissance unit able to reconnoitre in light but protected vehicles.

At 25 tons apiece, the Warriors forming the main escort for relief supplies are big, but less unwieldy than the big trucks they will be escorting. Modern and well-protected, they carry an infantry section of seven plus three crew, but are probably a match for the T-55 tanks used by Croatian and Serbian irregulars.