UK rapid reaction troops pull out

An elite British military force, trained for swift reaction to emergencies, is being pulled out of the Balkans after spending two months camped, unemployed in a swamp.

The 4,000 troops of the 24th Airmobile Brigade arrived in Croatia in July to form 50 per cent of the UN's "Rapid Reaction Force". Their withdrawal, part of a general reduction of UN troop levels, will cut the British presence in former Yugoslavia by half.

The troops were flown to the Balkans to deter Bosnian Serb attacks on safe areas following the fall of Srebrenica. They have been refused permission by the Bosnian government to deploy in central Bosnia, as planned. Instead, they have kicked their heels in a damp, low-lying, insect infested camp- ground at Ploce dockyard on the Croatian coast. At one point, their tents stood in two feet of water.

Senior officers gave up to 2,000 of the troops the option of moving into nearby hotels. The offer was accepted by a small RAF contingent but refused by the soldiers.

British defence sources said last night that the force - trained for fast operations using helicopters as a form of air cavalry - had been somewhat unhappy with its lot. But the discontent was based more on lack of activity than poor conditions.

Britain has therefore offered to remove the brigade as part of a general reduction in the UN presence in the Balkans. The brigade may return under Nato command as part of a "peace implementation force" if US-driven peace talks are successful.

Defence and diplomatic sources said the brigade had achieved its the desired effect, to send a political message to the Bosnian Serbs.

The brigade was supposed to move to central Bosnia. Its deployment has been blocked by the Bosnian government, possibly to keep UN forces away from the scene of the recent large-scale gains by the Muslim-Croat federation. In any event, as the war has turned against the Serbs, the rationale for its presence has disappeared.

The Foreign Secretary, Malcolm Rifkind yesterday insisted that there would be no unilateral withdrawal by Britain.