Allies threaten massive air attacks

Ultimatum to Bosnian Serbs warns of decisive action if Gorazde comes under fire
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The Independent Online
Britain, France and the United States are to issue an ultimatum to the Bosnian Serbs that any attack on the Muslim enclave of Gorazde will be met with massive Nato air strikes.

The three nations made their decision last night after failing to reach agreement with Russia after a day of talks in London. The Russian Defence Minister, Pavel Grachev, vigorously opposed the use of air power against the Serbs and the Russian delegation insisted that political negotiations must take priority.

But the Russians did not dissent from another critical decision to use the Anglo-French Rapid Reaction Force to create and secure routes for the delivery of aid to Sarajevo. Both Russia and the Western allies were locked in discussions late yesterday evening with the European Union mediator, Carl Bildt, who told ministers he had reached technical agreement with President Slobodan Milosevic for the recognition of Bosnia. Mr Bildt reported he had virtually closed the gaps in a deal by which Serbia would recognise Bosnia in return for the easing of United Nations sanctions - a deal hitherto obstructed by American objections.

A US State Department spokesman, Nicholas Burns, said ministers were still discussing two outstanding issues, which he did not identify. But he confirmed that Mr Bildt considered a possible agreement very near.

If approved by all the allies, this political breakthrough would open the way for greater pressure on the Bosnian Serbs.

But all negotiations were overshadowed yesterday by the allies' determination, led by the United States, that Gorazde should not fall. Britain agreed to overcome its previous reservations about the use of air strikes and the French Foreign Minister, Herve de Charette, said "a red line in the sand" must be drawn around the threatened enclave. The Foreign Secretary, Malcolm Rifkind, said the fall of Gorazde would mean the end of the UN mission in Bosnia, a move which all 16 nations at yesterday's London meeting wanted to avoid.

However, the US Senate Republican leader, Bob Dole, calling the meeting "another dazzling display of ducking the problem" that "made it clear there would be no immediate or decisive response except more meetings". Mr Dole said the London decision would bring a bigger Senate vote next week to lift the Bosnia arms embargo to allow Bosnian Muslims to defend themselves. The mainly Muslim Bosnian government said the meeting had failed and put its faith in promises of arms supplies from Islamic states meeting in Geneva. "Another half measure, another consensus, another collective fig leaf," the Prime Minister, Haris Silajdzic, said in Sarajevo.

"I'm afraid this will be interpreted by the Serb terrorists as a green light ... to attack Bihac, Sarajevo, Tuzla, go into Zepa and so on," he said.

The countries were not able to issue a unanimous specific threat to use air power because of Russian opposition. But even the Russians signed up to a statement that "in order to deter any attack on Gorazde any such action will be met with a substantial and decisive response." Britain is clearly placing great emphasis on the successful deterrent effect of this threat. It was not entirely clear from Mr Rifkind's remarks last night what would happen to the UN mission if Nato warplanes waged the widespread campaign against Bosnian Serb targets envisaged by American planners.

Another key point - agreed but not stated yesterday - was the exclusion from decision-making on air strikes of Yasushi Akashi, the senior UN official in the former Yugoslavia. The United States and Britain are understood to be satisfied that the decision to call in air power will now rest with the British UN Commander in Sarajevo, Maj Gen Rupert Smith. The allies all agreed on the need to use the Anglo-French Rapid Reaction Force to open a secure route for humanitarian supplies to Sarajevo.

Having overrun much of the hinterland of the Zepa safe area during the past week, Bosnian Serbs yesterday afternoon launched a mortar attack on the eastern part of the town. Sarajevo radio quoted a Bosnian army statement saying government defence lines around Zepa town were holding despite fierce artillery attacks.