Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, said last Saturday's massacre of 68 civilians in a mortar attack on the Bosnian capital had brought nearer a Western decision to use force.
Military action, if taken, would not extend to an all-out assault on Serbian artillery positions in the hills above Sarajevo. EU foreign ministers, meeting in Brussels, said the aim was to lift Sarajevo's siege immediately, but they avoided a precise deadline for action.
Russia expressed vehement opposition to air strikes against the Bosnian Serbs, indicating it might use its UN Security Council veto. The Foreign Minister, Andrei Kozyrev, condemned the strikes as 'the least acceptable option' for ending the war. But President Bill Clinton said the US supported a request to Nato from the UN Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, to prepare for such strikes around Sarajevo to deter future attacks. Nato is expected to decide its course of action at a meeting tomorrow in Brussels.
Officials from several EU delegations said the attack on a crowded market-place meant a Rubicon had been crossed. 'The events of last Saturday were a turning point,' Mr Hurd said. 'This does bring nearer a decision in one way or another to use force.'
The Bosnian Serb leadership denies its forces were responsible for the attack. UN officers in Bosnia say they have no conclusive proof as to who fired the mortar, but that there is no evidence that the Muslims attacked themselves.
EU countries, including Britain, have generally resisted the idea of air strikes, initially mooted by the US last year. The EU foreign ministers' statement yesterday left all the key decisions - how to use air strikes, when, at what risk and with what provisions - to Nato, a forum which includes the US and Canada. Lord Owen, the EU mediator, said he had agreed with Bosnian Serb leaders to negotiate a UN administration and demilitarisation of Sarajevo separately from an overall Bosnian settlement.
Mr Hurd said that, if air strikes went ahead, they must not lead to an expansion of the war or stop humanitarian aid.
There is sensitivity at Nato to the risk that tomorrow's meeting could end in division, undermining its credibility and perhaps ending any possibility of a united Western approach. 'We have only one chance to get this thing right,' a diplomat said yesterday.
Last year the US advocated 'lift and strike' - lifting the arms embargo against Bosnia and using air strikes. That was rejected by the Europeans and provoked a transatlantic crisis.
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