Paris hints at reducing Bosnia force

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The Independent Online
FRANCE said yesterday that it will withdraw more than one-third of its United Nations troops from the former Yugoslavia by the end of this year. But diplomatic sources said this figure appeared to refer to troop rotations, and was not an unexpected reduction.

Francois Leotard, the Defence Minister said, 'no one is obliged to do the absurd'. He added, in an interview with Europe-1 radio: 'by the end of the year there will be about 2,500 fewer French soldiers in the former Yugoslavia'. The French contingent numbers 6,800. The statement caused concern in Britain, which has the second biggest force in Bosnia after France.

Although the two countries have agreed to co-ordinate their strategy, Britain received no warning of Mr Leotard's announcement. No hint had come from the French Foreign Minister, Alain Juppe, at a foreign ministers' meeting on Bosnia in Geneva on Friday, or at a foreign affairs council in Brussels on Monday.

The British Government last night received an apology from France. The surprise was due to Mr Leotard 'jumping the gun' and failing to liaise with Mr Juppe about the announcement. Diplomatic sources said Mr Leotard's statement seemed to be part of a French effort 'to concentrate the mind' on ex-Yugoslavia and was not necessarily a change of line.

Mr Juppe said later in the day that France was withdrawing 1,000 men from Krajina, a Serb-controlled area in south-west Croatia, but had in exchange sent reinforcements to Sarajevo.

If there was no progress towards peace in the Muslim pocket of Bihac in north-west Bosnia, which borders on Krajina, France would also withdraw its 1,500 men there, Mr Juppe said, adding that this depended 'on the evolution of the diplomatic process'. Last week, Mr Juppe and Edouard Balladur, the Prime Minister, said France would withdraw unless there was an improvement in ex-Yugoslavia. The statements seem to be part of a strategy to put pressure on the warring parties, the United States and the rest of Europe, to back tougher UN action in Bosnia.

Bosnia is near the top of the French domestic political agenda. Bernard-Henri Levy, a prominent political thinker, has said he will set up a 'Sarajevo' list of candidates for next month's European elections, unless other politicians start to discuss Bosnia seriously in their campaigns. A British official said the French position 'shows it will be difficult to sustain the UN at the present level unless there is political progress'. Although Britain had always said it will not keep its forces in Bosnia for ever, 'we are not anywhere near the French stage . . . we are not looking at specific options for cutting our troops', he said.

The British, who have 3,350 troops in Bosnia, are to command a bigger slice of the UN's forces in Bosnia, it emerged yesterday.

TUZLA - A Nato plane set its sights on a Serbian tank firing at the UN-controlled airport in Tuz la, northern Bosnia, but UN officials denied a request for air strikes from ground troops, Reuter reports. 'We had FACs (forward air controllers) in the area and requested air strikes,' a source said. 'We didn't get permission.'