France's Prime Minister, Alain Juppe, said yesterday that France - and implicitly also Britain - would pull their troops out of the Balkans unless Serbia rapidly recognised Bosnia in its pre-war borders.
France has privately warned the UN that unless its conditions are met, it will stop replacing troops in July. The idea is to make a smooth withdrawal rather than a mass evacuation that could cause soldiers to be killed or taken hostage.
Serbia's President, Slobodan Milosevic, refused yesterday to give the explicit promise on recognition that the West wants, increasing the possibility of a British and French withdrawal.
Although recognition of Bosnia by Belgrade would alter little on the ground, it would bring pressure on the Bosnian Serbs to return to the bargaining table.
Mr Juppe's statement marked the first time that France has linked its involvement in the United Nations operation to a specific diplomatic measure, and it underlined warnings from Paris that it is serious about removing its troops if there is no progress towards a settlement.
A French withdrawal would almost certainly mean an end to Britain's peace- keeping presence in Bosnia, but would not necessarily result in a complete UN pull-out. France and Britain are the largest contributors to the UN Protection Force (Unprofor) operation, but their troops could be replaced by other states. Mr Juppe did not mention Britain, but France and Britain are co-ordinating policies on Bosnia. It appears Britain is happy to let France take the lead in presenting the case for withdrawal.
In his first policy speech since President Jacques Chirac appointed him last week, Mr Juppe told the National Assembly that the five-nation "Contact Group", comprising Britain, France, Germany, Russia and the United States, was trying to persuade Serbia to recognise Bosnia. He added: "If these efforts proved to be in vain, France and its partners could not keep its peace-keepers for long in an Unprofor whose impotent presence would have lost all reason to exist."
Nato has plans to remove UN peace-keepers from Bosnia, but the French method of not replacing troops as they return home may avert the need for Nato involvement. France has almost 5,000 soldiers in Bosnia, and 37 have been killed there.
Mr Milosevic has hinted that he may recognise Bosnia. But yesterday the US envoy, Robert Frasure, returned from Belgrade without a firm commitment from him. Diplomats said Mr Milosevic wanted a guarantee that UN sanctions, to be suspended if he recognises Bosnia, would not be reimposed.
The offer which Mr Frasure presented to Mr Milosevic kept in place certain measures, such as the denial of access to foreign credit, until the achievement of a general peace.