Air strikes unlikely to get off the ground

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The Independent Online
THE PROSPECT of Western air- raids on Serbian positions surrounding Sarajevo evaporated yesterday, despite confusion about the scope and timing of the Russian gambit to defuse the crisis.

Western governments appeared content - even relieved - to play along with the Russian-brokered deal, which should, in theory, remove all Serbian heavy weaponry beyond firing range of the city tonight. The Russians, flushed with diplomatic triumph, said use of Nato aircraft to enforce tomorrow night's ultimatum could embroil the West in an 'all-out war'.

Nato officials said that the ultimatum remained in force and aircraft would be scrambled unless all Serbian heavy weapons were with withdrawn. But privately Western officials acknowledged that air strikes were no longer on the agenda.

The United Nations special envoy in Sarajevo, Yasushi Akashi, said the Bosnian Serbs agreed yesterday to grant full freedom of movement to UN troops patrolling their positions around Sarajevo. Mr Akashi said the Serbs had so far put about 50 guns under the control of the UN Protection Force (Unprofor) and withdrawn a significant number of artillery pieces and mortars.

The UN spokesman, Bill Aikman, said the withdrawals were significant but an earlier assessment saying that Serbs convoys were pulling back was misleading.

Is the 22-month siege of Sarajevo truly finished? The war-weary citizens of the Bosnian capital were deeply sceptical yesterday about the worth of any agreement monitored by Russian troops, whom they see as natural allies of the Serbs. But the Bosnian President, Alija Izetbegovic, took a surprisingly positive line, saying that 'the drama of Sarajevo will soon be over'. The leader of the Bosnian Serbs, Radovan Karadzic, said: 'We are approaching peace in Sarajevo.'

Lieutenant-General Sir Michael Rose, commander of UN forces in Bosnia, confirmed after meeting Mr Karadzic that he expected the Serbs to fulfil their promise to withdraw all heavy guns 20km (12 miles) from the city.

A note of caution was sounded by the French Foreign Minister, Alain Juppe: 'Lifting the siege of Sarajevo is not limited to the withdrawal of Serb artillery. It also requires freedom of movement for humanitarian convoys and for people.'

In London, the Secretary of State for Defence, Malcolm Rifkind, risked straining British relations with Washington before the Prime Minister's visit to President Bill Clinton next week, when he said the US should shoulder the main burden of providing extra troops to police the peace. 'The United States has only 15 people in the whole of Bosnia. We have 2,500.'

The first of two companies of British Warriors from the Coldstream Guards arrived in Sarajevo yesterday to help to monitor the ceasefire and withdrawal of weapons. An Unprofor spokesman said the British were to deploy on Mount Zuc, overlooking the city, and send armed patrols to look for weapons in a five square kilometre area.