The alliance threatened immediate retaliation for Serbian bombardment of the Bosnian capital. The communique that ended a meeting of Nato ambassadors in Brussels authorises Nato 'to launch air strikes at the request of the United Nations against artillery or mortar positions in or around Sarajevo . . . which are determined by Unprofor (UN peace-keeping forces) to be responsible for attacks against civilian targets in that city'.
It also imposed a 10-day deadline for placing artillery under UN control within a 20-kilometre (12 1/2-mile) radius of Sarajevo. Any artillery in this area not placed under UN control would be subject to attack.
'Ten days from 2400GMT on 10 February 1994, heavy weapons of any of the parties found within the Sarajevo exclusion zone, unless controlled by Unprofor, will . . . be subject to Nato air strikes,' it said.
Differences over the timing and distances kept the ambassadors arguing late into the night. But the thrust of the plan, a Franco-American initiative, seemed to overcome long-entrenched British objections.
Nato's decision follows the mortar attack which killed 68 in the Bosnian capital on Saturday.
Earlier in Sarajevo, the UN Force commander in Bosnia, Lieutenant-General Sir Michael Rose, brokered an accord with Bosnian Serbs and Muslim army commanders to begin withdrawing Serbian guns from the hills round Sarajevo at about noon today. But within minutes of General Rose's announcement, Serbian leaders threw the plan into disarray. 'We agreed to an immediate ceasefire. But there is no precise agreement on demilitarisation,' said a senior Bosnian Serb official.
Greece opted out of the Nato operation. Of the allies it is geographically the closest to the conflict and most sympathetic to Serbia. Turkey will also stay at arm's length.
Resistance from Canada, which has peace-keeping troops in Bosnia, also complicated the proceedings. But diplomats said other states also had reservations. Britain had been very reluctant to allow air strikes since the beginning of the war. And crucial differences between the United States and France, both advocates of air strikes, also raised problems.
The threat to use air strikes if Serbian artillery is not brought under UN control takes the West towards using force to protect civilians. Nato has already authorised the use of air power to defend UN troops.
The credibility of Nato was at stake if it failed to agree or came up with a less than clear statement of intention. Alliance diplomats and officials had been increasingly worried in recent weeks that repeated threats - never backed up by action - were weakening Nato's foundations. Saturday's deaths brought the issue to a head.
But there are many remaining problems. The defence of UN troops, should Serbian militias retaliate, has been a preoccupation for countries contributing to peace-keeping in Bosnia. Nato was expected to issue a warning to Serbian forces and a threat to defend the UN if necessary.
It is unclear what the political outcome of the military moves will be. The communique says that 'the lifting of the siege could be a step toward the placing of Sarajevo under UN administration', and it 'commends' the European Union's plan for a negotiated settlement. But Bosnian Muslim diplomats last night opposed the idea of UN administration.
Air strikes would be carried out by aircraft based in Italy, on aircraft carriers in the Adriatic and in other Nato countries - possibly including communication aircraft based in Britain at RAF Waddington. If action is taken it will be the first time that Nato, founded in 1949, has fired its weapons in anger.
In a rare show of unity, Russia's feuding politicians yesterday warned the West against launching air attacks on the Bosnian Serbs. President Boris Yeltsin contacted world leaders to advise against precipitate action, and Russian members of parliament across the political spectrum said the legislature also opposed bombing the Serbs.
President Clinton said last night he hoped Mr Yeltsin would 'if not agree with what we've decided, at least understand it better'.
Jets ready in minutes, page 13
Russia united in opposition, page 13
Letters, page 21
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