Air strikes dilemma for Britain as Zepa collapses

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The Cabinet will today be given a stark choice of launching further air strikes in Bosnia or surrendering the ''safe area'' of Gorazde to the Bosnian Serbs. The issue was given greater urgency last night as the nearby enclave of Zepa was reported to have fallen. John Major held talks with Bill Clinton by telephone to agree an approach before an international crisis meeting in London tomorrow.

Ministers will be told that air strikes to protect Goradze are likely to be supported by France and the US at the international conference but they would carry the risk that United Nations peace-keepers would be taken hostage by the Bosnian Serbs. Military chiefs have warned British ministers that if the nations at the meeting tomorrow resolve to deter Bosnian Serb seizure of Goradze, "they cannot just bluff". They will have to decide whether they are prepared to see through the action either by air power or by ground forces.

The Defence Secretary, Michael Portillo, will tell Cabinet colleagues he has been warned by his senior military advisers that if air strikes are threatened, the Western allies have to be prepared to "hit the Serbs and hit them hard".

As debate continued on both sides of the Atlantic, Bosnian Serbs said they had conquered Zepa and would allow surrendering civilians to leave under UN escort. Bosnian government and Zepa officials denied the town had fallen, saying only that Serbs had moved into some outlying villages in the enclave.

Mayor Mehmet Hajric of Zepa, in a radio link-up last night, made "our last appeal to the world community" and to the UN Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, for air evacuation of the townspeople.

The French prime minister, Alain Juppe, said France had offered a force of 1,000 men to help defend Gorazde, and criticised the Americans for their reluctance to become involved. "If the United States had lifted a finger to support the peace plans one or two years ago,'' he said on French television, ''the war could have been stopped.''

If no action is taken, Gorazde almost certainly will have to be surrendered after a bloody battle. The defence of Sarajevo then would become the final testing ground for the UN to fulfil its mission in Bosnia, or pull out and lift the arms embargo.

Military chiefs have advised British ministers the stakes they are playing for involve peace or war. Ministers have been left in no doubt that hard- hitting air strikes would change the nature of the UN forces' peace-keeping mission into a "fighting war", which Malcolm Rifkind, the Foreign Secretary, has said Britain would not support. If hostages were taken, Britain would have to "take it on the chin". The British troops most at risk would include the Royal Welch Fusiliers in Gorazde. Mr Portillo told the Commons in an emergency debate last night: "Anyone who harms them will be held personally responsible.''

Britain is seeking wide agreement for whatever action is agreed at the meeting at Lancaster House, and will not go to the international conference with any specific proposal. Britain has been pursuing the possibility of trilateral action with France and the US, but that has proved extremely difficult.

Britain is against throwing an army division into Bosnia to rescue Gorazde because it would take too long and be too hazardous. The options include reinforcing Gorazde with light ground forces supported by air power, or the use of air power alone to try to halt a Serb attack on the safe haven. None of the options is free of risks.

The British UN commander in Bosnia, Lt-Gen Rupert Smith, yesterday sought General Ratko Mladic's permission for humanitarian aid to the civilian victims of Bosnian Serb offensives in eastern Bosnia and for a withdrawal of UN troops from Srebrenica and Zepa. Sources said Gen Mladic, who held a secret meeting with Gen Smith in Sarajevo, seemed amenable to Gen Smith's requests that international aid workers be allowed to deliver aid to Sarajevo and the other enclaves and to visit Bosnians detained after the fall of Srebrenica last week. They said the Serb general "seemed content" to allow the safe departure of 79 Ukrainian peace-keepers from Zepa and 300 Dutch from Srebrenica.

"There have been talks in Sarajevo between Smith and Mladic and they were aimed at working out how to save the civilians who are under threat," said one UN official in Bosnia.

Stakes raised, pages 10, 11

Letters, page 14

Andrew Marr, page 15