Britain Questions Bosnia Duty

Worried about their troops, British planners concede they are considering pulling them out

TWO weeks after it happened, defense planners are still seething about an incident involving British troops near the Bosnian town of Kiseljak. Their mood of sustained indignation helps to explain why London's perspective on the fighting in the former Yugoslavia is changing.

The soldiers, patrolling in two armored cars as part of a United Nations "Convoy of Joy" bringing food to besieged Muslim areas, were ambushed on June 10 by Muslim fighters. The Muslims dragged the peacekeepers from their vehicles, threatened them with rocket launchers, made them lie on the ground, and stole their weapons.

UN rules of engagement prevented the British detachment from defending itself. The reaction in London, when news of the incident was relayed to defense officials, was incandescent anger in private and measured indignation in public.

David Howell, chairman of the House of Commons foreign affairs committee, captured the mood of his fellow parliamentarians when he spoke of his "horror" at the humiliation of the peacekeepers. British troops, he insisted, "must not be left in an impossible position." Armed Forces Minister Jeremy Hanley conceded that there was "a contingency plan for British withdrawal from Bosnia."

Withdrawal is not being contemplated as an immediate option, but behind the scenes defense planners are beginning to question seriously the wisdom of keeping 4,500 British troops in Bosnia, now that the UN- and EC-sponsored Vance-Owen peace plan has been abandoned, and a three-way carve-up of Bosnia on ethnic lines appears probable.

"At the very least," a government adviser said, "there needs to be a revision of the UN mandate, which currently does not give our troops the right to defend themselves against the kind of indignity they were forced to suffer in the Kiseljak incident."

The crisis is being monitored "every passing minute," Mr. Hanley says. Officially, a detachment of Britain's Coldstream Guards is earmarked for a six-month tour of Bosnia-Herzegovina in October, and Defense Ministry officials say the plan is that they will go.

But alarm at the deterioration of security in the region is reflected in comments from Defense Ministry sources that a force of up to 2,000 British troops is already on standby in case they are needed to cover a withdrawal from Bosnia by the soldiers already there.

It has taken a long time for the current disenchanted mood to build. The national contingent in Bosnia has received hugely favorable publicity in the British media. Some of its members have been acclaimed as virtual folk heroes. Col. Bob Stewart, commander of Britain's Cheshire Regiment, was awarded an honor by the Queen after he returned home in May.

But the failure of Europe and the United States to agree on an effective policy for Bosnia, plus the steady unraveling of the UN peace plan, has been sapping the enthusiasm that initially fueled Britain's contribution to the UN peace effort.

Prime Minister John Major is known to want a UN revision of the peacekeeping mandate, but officials here concede that may take weeks if not months. Rewriting it may not be necessary, some officials say, because a settlement in Bosnia, based on a deal between Serbia and Croatia, will be worked out soon. Meanwhile, influential figures are joining the ranks of those who question the need for British troops to be in Bosnia at all.

Paddy Ashdown, leader of the Liberal Democratic Party and a former serviceman, says the government must "consider the reality of the need to withdraw."

He believes the crisis has become one of "utmost gravity," with Britain facing "a situation which is simply beyond control."

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