BRITAIN is weighing the arguments for and against pulling its troops out of Bosnia and is likely to reach a firm decision in the spring.
There are indications that a withdrawal will be ordered as early as May if it can be coordinated with other countries with troops operating under the United Nations flag in the former Yugoslavia.
On Jan. 22, after a two-day fact-finding tour of British military bases in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd said ``hard choices'' had to be made. A withdrawal was ``not imminent,'' but London officials have begun to speak privately of the likelihood of Prime Minister John Major ordering the withdrawal of the 2,600 British troops currently in Bosnia.
The officials say progress in peace talks in the next two or three months could persuade Mr. Major to leave British forces in place, but such progress is considered unlikely.
Pressure for withdrawal is coming from the Defense Ministry in London where there are signs of mounting impatience at delays in delivering aid and increasing risks caused by the continued fighting.
Defense Minister Malcolm Rifkind said on Jan. 21 that all UN contingents might be pulled out of Bosnia in the spring, but that a British withdrawal would not be decided unilaterally.
Mr. Hurd's approach appears more circumspect, taking into account the likely effect on the civil war in Bosnia of a precipitate British withdrawal.
After speaking to British military commanders at their main base near Vitez, Hurd said the Major government's policy was to ``look ahead'' and decide ``whether the good that is being done by our forces outweighs the risks.
``Whether the war would break out with even greater savagery if the troops left is a point we have to assess,'' he told reporters. The foreign secretary arrived in Bosnia after last week's collapse of peace talks in Geneva.
The British contingent in the war zone operates under a UN mandate to escort aid convoys to an estimated 2.7 million people. Several government-supporting members of the British Parliament have argued for a withdrawal from Bosnia because they say the civil war is preventing UN troops from carrying out their mission effectively.
In Bosnia, however, Hurd said he was ``impressed'' by the aid effort and pledged a further 5 million ($7.5 million) to support the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Britain's total official aid contribution in Bosnia so far is 160 million ($239 million).
During the Hurd visit, Gordon Bacon of Feed the Children said: ``If the troops withdraw, I believe we and other agencies would have no choice but to do the same.'' One of Hurd's advisers pointed out that any withdrawal of British troops would have to be coordinated with France, Canada, and other countries that have military contingents in Bosnia.
Defense sources in London point out that if a decision is taken to pull troops out of Bosnia, their withdrawal will have to be carried out under cover of military firepower. Planes aboard the British aircraft carrier Ark Royal could be used for that purpose. On Jan. 23, the 20,000-ton carrier, which has eight jump-jets onboard, was preparing to head for the Adriatic Sea off former Yugoslavia.
There is also a possibility that carrier-based British planes could be used if the UN decides to back up with force its plans to reopen Tuzla airport and to withdraw Canadian troops bogged down in Srebrenica and replace them with a Dutch unit.
The possibility of airstrikes was raised on Jan. 21 by UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali. He said: ``I favor using air force so that we will be able to implement the resolutions of the UN.'' He said he would certainly ``give the green light'' to airstrikes if UN officials in Bosnia requested them.