Pull-out denied as Hurd visits British UN troops

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The Independent Online
THE Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd, arrives in Split this evening on his way to visit British United Nations troops in central Bosnia tomorrow.

The Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence yesterday dismissed reports that the visit would result in a 'make-or-break' decision on whether British troops should remain in Bosnia after spring. The Government's position, restated at last week's Nato summit, remains that British troops are committed for the winter. The Government is unwilling to commit itself further but a new armoured infantry battalion, the Royal Anglian Regiment, is in training to replace the Coldstream Guards if required.

There is no prospect of a unilateral British withdrawal, but as a major player the British will inevitably influence a UN decision - especially as a British officer, Lieutenant-General Sir Michael Rose, takes command of the UN forces in Bosnia at the end of the month.

Besides their role in escorting UN aid, the British troops have to live in a tense and fickle environment and to cope with extreme weather conditions. Yesterday a Croatian driver, taken prisoner by the mainly Muslim Bosnian army (BiH) and released on Tuesday, was returned to Split after prolonged efforts by the British company based in Gornji Vakuf.

The situation around the main British base at Vitez, further north, appears quiet, although on Tuesday evening a sniper fired at a Warrior infantry fighting vehicle on the route east of Vitez.

A Foreign Office spokesman said Mr Hurd had not been to Bosnia since July 1992 and that it would 'obviously be useful for him to be there in winter'. Bosnia is a continuing topic of conversation at the European Union foreign-affairs council in Brussels and with other cabinet ministers, and first-hand experience of terrain, weather - especially in the winter - and the complexity of local politics is essential.

The Croatian driver, Josko Dragan, worked for a car-hire firm in Split. He was taken prisoner in central Bosnia on 12 December with two Italian journalists who had employed him and unwisely strayed from the protection of UN convoys. The journalists, from Corriere della Sera, were released quickly but the Muslims held the Croat in Gornji Vakuf. He was released on Monday after the commander of No 1 Company the Coldstream Guards, Major Andrew Johnston, interceded on his behalf. The Italian journalists have had their press accreditation withdrawn. Mr Dragan was reunited with his family and friends in Split yesterday. He said he was 'reasonably well treated'.