Today John Major meets senior Nato military commanders and is expected to obtain advice on whether UN forces should remain after the winter. Yesterday's reaffirmation of Nato's readiness to mount air attacks would make sense in the event of UN troops withdrawing - when they would be most vulnerable and when the subsequent reaction of local forces would be of no direct concern.
While UN troops remain, air attacks by Nato planes are no more likely than before. The Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd, said yesterday that the position remained as in August. 'I wouldn't myself expect there will be firm military action today. Planning continues as to how, if necessary, it may be implemented.' Nato's Secretary-General, Manfred Worner, and Mr Major both said that so far Nato had done 'efficiently everything it had been asked to do' in support of UN forces in Bosnia.
The final draft of the communique says: 'We reaffirm readiness to carry out air strikes to prevent the strangulation of Sarajevo, safe areas and other threatened areas in Bosnia-Herzegovina. We reaffirm our determination to contribute to the implementation of a viable settlement reached in good faith.'
President Clinton welcomed the Nato warning. 'But if we are going to reassert this warning it cannot be seen as mere rhetoric. Those who attack Sarajevo must understand that we are serious. If we leave the sentence in the Declaration we have to mean it.' It was left in.
The commanders Mr Major meets today include the Supreme Allied Commander Europe, the US General George Joulwan, formerly US commander in Panama, and the chairman of Nato's military committee, Field Marshal Sir Richard Vincent. 'He wants to get a real feel for the practicalities,' said a British government source. It seems Mr Major wants hard advice about whether to stay in Bosnia.
Mr Hurd, just briefed on the Bosnian situation, said that there had been a strong Muslim offensive against the Croats. In the Muslim enclave of Srebrenica the Serbs had prevented the UN relieving the Canadian garrison, and had refused to allow Tuzla airport, in central Bosnia, to be opened. In Sarajevo, Muslims had launched an attack on Serb areas.
Asked whether air strikes were any nearer, Mr Hurd said: 'We've agreed to them in principle. Whether they're any nearer depends on the situation on the ground. It's not just a question of how bad things have to get but of what air strikes can do.'
The reaffirmation of Nato's readiness to launch air attacks, he said, 'will be implemented once it is felt - if it is felt - it will do good. There may be circumstances when it may be right to use air power to see through a particular operation'. Given the reluctance to use air power so far, and the subsequent danger to the troops on the ground - notably the British and French, who are heavily committed - that particular operation could be withdrawal.
In Paris, the UN Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, said yesterday that it was up to the Security Council to authorise air strikes in Bosnia but he would recommend them if asked by his special representative on former Yugoslavia.