France snubs Rifkind over talks schedule

MICHAEL SHERIDAN

Diplomatic Editor

The Government was yesterday involved in an embarrassing clash of views with France after the Foreign Secretary, Malcolm Rifkind, told the Conservative Party Conference that Britain would host an important peace conference on Bosnia.

A few hours after Mr Rifkind's speech, the French foreign ministry reacted to the idea with such coolness that diplomats believed France had not given its agreement before he made the announcement.

British officials strongly denied that that the Foreign Secretary had jumped the gun on a serious matter of foreign policy in order to cut an authoritative figure before the party audience. There was, however, no explanation for the public divergence between two allies who have worked closely together in diplomatic and military policy towards the former Yugoslavia.

Mr Rifkind said in his speech at Blackpool on Tuesday that Britain would host a Peace Implementation Conference in London which "will follow the proximity talks announced by President Clinton last week". British officials said it would precede the final conference in Paris to seal a peace treaty between the factions in the former Yugoslavia. The Foreign Office expected the the conference to take place at the end of November or early December.

But late on Tuesday night the French foreign ministry, the Quai D'Orsay, said Mr Rifkind's conference "must be considered as a follow up" to the talks in the US and the Paris meeting.

France had "no objection in principle" to the British idea of such a conference to discuss practical issues of troop deployment and reconstruction, the ministry said.

In an aside that will touch sensitive nerves in the British government, the French added that the conference "could take place in the framework of the consultations already under way between the members of the European Union, at the common suggestion of France and Germany."

Yesterday British officials hastily conceded that "timetables were very flexible" and pointed out that the unpredictable nature of the Bosnian peace negotiations made it impossible to set a date for either conference in Paris or London,

They emphasised that there is agreement among the key countries involved in Bosnia on the need for a meeting to resolve outstanding issues likely to arise after the peace talks.

Mr Rifkind said Nato and the Russians would need to talk about the role, size and duration of the new Peace Implementation Force. International institutions would be brought in to discuss humanitarian requirements and the cost of post-war reconstruction.

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