BRITAIN and France have decided to pull their troops out of Bosnia-Herzegovina if parties to the fighting there shun the latest United Nations-backed peace plan.
Officials in London and Paris say the move is intended to drive home to Serbs, Croats, and Muslims alike the dangers of letting the fighting continue and running the risk of a wider Balkan war.
British Defense Ministry analysts say withdrawal of the British and French contingents - which together total more than 10,000 men - from the UN peace force in Bosnia would probably cause a total collapse of order in the former Yugoslavia.
And Senior British sources say Prime Minister John Major is now ready to support the removal of the embargo on the supply of arms to Bosnia if the Bosnian Serbs do not agree to the present plan.
A government source said Mr. Major was reluctant to do this, but if this latest effort does not produce a settlement, it was ``clear that lifting the arms embargo will become part of our agenda.''
Major in a radio interview on July 11 urged all the parties in Bosnia to accept the latest partition plan or ``risk igniting a wider war.... For too long, the Bosnians on one side and the Serbs on the other have waited for what for them would be the perfect set of proposals. Well, the perfect set of proposals is not available,'' he said. ``We do not want to see this slide back into the sort of war which existed in the past and then perhaps accelerate.''
Time is ticking
Deadline for acceptance or rejection of the latest plan has been set for July 19. The plan proposes giving the Serbs 49 percent of the country and a Croat-Muslim federation 51 percent. The Serbs currently hold 70 percent of Bosnia.
For many months, Britain has been urged by the Clinton administration to drop its resistance to lifting the arms embargo. Major reluctantly ordered a reversal of policy, his officials say, in the days before last weekend's Group of Seven (G-7) summit meeting in Naples, Italy.
Indications that London and Paris had finally run out of patience in the pursuit of peace in Bosnia preceded a two-day visit to the area by Douglas Hurd, Britain's foreign secretary, and his French counterpart Alain Juppe.
They begin their visit today to Sarajevo and move on to Belgrade tomorrow. Pale, the Bosnian Serb stronghold, may also be a stopping point on their agenda. British officials say the message they bear will be in the form of an ultimatum: Accept the peace plan, or face the consequences of a withdrawal of British and French forces.
Before leaving London on July 11, Mr. Hurd told aides that he was pessimistic about Bosnia's future. He said he feared the war would spread southward if the plan prepared by the so-called contact group of nations in Geneva was rejected. The warning was spelled out after the G-7 summit considered the Bosnian crisis. In Naples, Italy, Major warned of the ``grave risk of war on a large scale'' in Bosnia.
Shouldering the burden
British and French troops have born the brunt of peacekeeping in Bosnia. Together they have been instrumental in maintaining a supply of food and other necessities to people in many parts of the country.
Although a 1992 UN Security Council mandate prevented them from playing an active part in the fighting, their presence in population centers such as Sarajevo has helped to diffuse tension. Occasionally they have fired back when local forces attacked them.
A British defense source said last weekend that removal of British and French forces from Bosnia would be ``a sure-fire formula for deepening the crisis.''
The analyst added that removal of the arms embargo, which has hampered the Muslims in their attempts to resist attacks from other ethnic forces, would ``almost certainly turn a reasonably localized conflict into something much, much larger.''
A pullout of British and French troops would bring an end to more than two years of European attempts to halt the fighting in Bosnia.
In France, political support for the country's military presence in Bosnia has been fairly consistent. In Britain, however, a substantial number of members of Parliament have continued to raise doubts about the dangers the country's troops are facing in the midst of a conflict that could all too easily spread out of control.
Parliamentary sources in London say that if Major orders British troops out, his decision will receive solid backing in the House of Commons.
The Defense Ministry in London is reported to have already completed plans for withdrawing British troops from enclaves around Gorazde, about 30 miles southeast of Sarajevo. Officials say, however, that doubts remain as to whether Serbs and Muslims in the area will cooperate in the evacuation.