Rifkind puts on a show in the snow: Britain's Defence Minister visited Bosnia yesterday and ruled out the use of force to end the conflict. A sceptical Robert Fisk, in Gornji Vakuf, heard and watched him

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The Independent Online
WE HAD HEARD it before, but never so bluntly spoken. It would need 100,000 troops. There would be heavy casualties. It could last for years. 'Inappropriate' was the word Malcolm Rifkind used, but there was no doubting what he meant. With the UN almost cut off in Sarajevo and the international organisation facing the greatest crisis of its Balkan involvement, the British Defence Secretary did not want the UN to impose peace in Bosnia by force of arms.

Given the armour, the mortars and the Milan anti-tank missiles which British troops in Bosnia have now amassed, it was - to put it mildly - a rather meek performance. Mr Rifkind called the conflict a 'civil war', despite Britain's recognition of President Alija Izetbegovic's government in Sarajevo.

What will the shabby Bosnian militiamen whom Mr Rifkind saw think of this? In the Vitez gymnasium where he was speaking, the soldiers of the Cheshire Regiment listened expressionless. But the words were unequivocal.

To impose peace in Bosnia by the use of force, he said, 'would be inappropriate because I think the scale of what would be involved would be dramatic. It's been suggested that over 100,000 soldiers might be required. Their commitment would be open-ended. It could last for very many years and there would be the certainty . . . of significant casualties'.

Whence came this epic figure of 100,000 troops? Or the 'open-ended' commitment? Mr Rifkind did not vouchsafe the answers. Was it to compensate for all this that he at least tried to look warlike? For the Defence Secretary turned up at the Royal Engineers' mountain redoubt in the Prenj mountains clad in a camouflage uniform, patent leather shoes, an army belt worn inside-out and a military 'combat cold-weather hat' - complete with tied-back ear-flaps - which made him look like the inmate of a North Korean prisoner-of-war camp. As a Cheshire regiment private put it with admirable frankness, it would be 'just too embarrassing' for any serving soldier to wear.

But Mr Rifkind plodded gainfully around in the snow, shaking hands with soldiers of unimaginable cheerfulness as the sleet settled on their uniforms. Still muffled in a civilian scarf and ear-flapped hat, he found himself locked into mountain traffic jams as rowdy Croatian soldiers - some wearing what looked like Arsenal scarves - decided they too would use the Sappers' road-widening scheme. Transport lorries, military trucks and busloads of militiamen clogged the snow on each side of Mr Rifkind's UN convoy.

He could scarcely disregard the evil at large in Bosnia. He was driven through the village of Prozor, recently 'cleansed' of Muslims by the right-wing Croatian HOS militia. Many of the homes he passed were burnt out, their rafters pointing to the sky like the ribs of old boats. Two restaurants had been gutted. Half the headstones in the local Muslim cemetery had been smashed to pieces.

Mr Rifkind had not forgotten the press, of course. A day earlier, British Army press officers were informed that he wished to hold a press conference in front of a group of Warrior armoured vehicles. The snow destroyed such plans.

But Mr Rifkind was not to be outdone. He climbed aboard one of the Cheshires' Warriors and was driven for an hour and a half across the frozen hills of Bosnia, standing up at the rear of the vehicle and waving happily to cameramen as if he was on a publicity tour. Was there not a tragedy in this land?