Naval blockade lifts in Adriatic

But efforts to stop a Balkan arms race will carry on, Christopher Bellamy reports
The naval blockade of the former Yugoslavia was suspended yesterday following the UN decision on Tuesday to end the arms embargo after four and a half years. Nato's Southern Command yesterday said that "Nato and WEU ships will no longer challenge, board or divert ships in the Adriatic".

The combined forces of Nato and the Western European Union will disperse but be available if sanctions are re-imposed.

In theory, there could now be a massive influx of arms to Bosnia, Croatia and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (Serbia and Montenegro), although senior military and diplomatic sources yesterday said that they thought this would be unlikely, and that the peace implementation force, I-For, will continue to monitor all entry points.

The former warring factions agreed limits on armaments at last week's review conference in Florence. But the limits only refer to numbers of different types of weapon and will not prevent factions replacing old weapons with new ones.

The joint Nato and WEU naval blockade - Operation "Sharp Guard"- began three years ago, on 15 June, although Nato and WEU forces had been patrolling separately since November 1992. Until yesterday 18 warships from 11 countries were involved, including two - HMS Nottingham and HMS Campbeltown - from Britain.Combined Task Force 440 was commanded by Admiral Mario Angeli of Italy, who also had eight maritime patrol aircraft available for searching for blockade runners.

Yesterday Nato said: "Enforcement operations have been suspended but operation Sharp Guard has not been terminated. Nato and WEU forces will be prepared to resume enforcement operations if economic sanctions are reimposed."

Since November 1992, the Nato and WEU forces have challenged more than 73,000 ships, boarded and inspected almost 6,000 at sea, and diverted 1,500 to ports for inspection.Only six vessels were found to be carrying arms in violation of UN Security Council resolutions. Most of the arms which found their way into the former Yugoslavia came by land, but Nato officials claim that the maritime blockade had a major effect in preventing escalation of the conflict.

Preventing a build-up of arms now depends on the former warring factions' compliance with the agreed totals, and on the ability of I-For and observers from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) to monitor what is going on. The Florence agreement limits heavy weapons in the same way as the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty, affecting tanks, artillery, armoured combat vehicles, aircraft and helicopters.

Within Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Muslim-Croat Federation is allowed twice as many heavy weapons as the Bosnian Serbs, while rump Yugoslavia is allowed a similar advantage over Croatia. Much of the equipment is old, however, and diplomatic sources yesterday said they could not rule out its replacement with new, high-technology weapons.

The arms limits do not apply to equipment such as small arms, and hand- held anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons, the type of weapons that the poorly trained local forces could most easily assimilate. The restrictions do not apply either to crucial components of military equipment such as radios, which made such a difference to the Croatian offensives in the Krajina last summer.

While the present implementation force remains in Bosnia, no European Union country will supply weapons to any of the countries affected by the agreement. The US has said it will provide training but not weapons. However, one block to massive re-armament is the simple fact that the former warring factions are broke.

t Bonn - A German soldier in Croatia was shot in the leg while travelling in an army vehicle, but not seriously hurt, Reuter reports. He was Germany's first peacekeeper to be shot in Croatia. Germany has about 2,700 soldiers in Croatia supporting the NATO-led peacekeeping force in Bosnia.