UN looks on as Croats burn and loot homes

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Sarajevo (Reuter) - The United Nations yesterday defended its failure to intervene in parts of Bosnia where Croat forces are systematically burning and looting towns, and said it did not think Nato troops, in similar circumstances, would get involved.

British forces currently deployed in these areas as UN peace-keepers will remain on the ground for Nato when it deploys later this month.

"If you look at our mandate, our interpretation is we were not sent here to stop civil populations burning down their own houses," said Lieutenant- Colonel Chris Vernon, the UN spokesman.

About 60,000 Nato combat troops are scheduled to be deployed in Bosnia to implement a peace plan initialled in Dayton, Ohio, last month and due to be signed in Paris next Thursday. Nato will bring bigger guns, better armour and artillery and more robust rules of engagement, mostly for defensive purposes.

With the UN packing up and Nato just arriving, Bosnia has been left to its own devices - with predictable consequences. The Croats have burned down 40 per cent of Mrkonjic Grad and Sipovo, towns scheduled to revert to Serb control after the peace plan is signed. The arson and looting is being carried out by uniformed soldiers, much of it under the under the eyes of British troops whom the UN has ordered to observe but not to interfere.

Bosnian Serb leaders, some of them indicted war criminals supposed to have stepped down under the Dayton deal, are rejecting the agreement as it calls for them to hand Sarajevo's northern and western suburbs to government control.

Serb troops are also blocking UN-escorted civilian convoys to Gorazde, in defiance of a pledge made in October in exchange for a halt to Nato air strikes. And Serbs are continuing to drive Muslims from their homes - 60 families this week alone in the Banja Luka region - despite the fact that the Dayton accord "guarantees" the rights of minorities to stay in their property.

"Nato will be in an invidious position no matter what it does," said a relief worker. "If it lets the locals take things into their own hands, hardline Croats and Serbs will scuttle the Dayton agreement. If Nato tries to become an occupying force, which may be what is necessary to make the deal work, it could will get sucked into the quagmire it vowed to avoid."

n Washington (AP) - Nearly half the House of Representatives signed a letter to President Bill Clinton opposing the deployment of US troops to Bosnia, even as he formally notified Congress yesterday that the first Americans had landed. In their one-sentence letter, 184 members - 171 Republicans and 13 Democrats - wrote: "We urge you not to send ground troops to Bosnia."