But the United States, which had pressed for the air strike plan at a Nato meeting lasting through most of the night between Monday and Tuesday, warned that 'the clock is ticking' towards military action if the situation on the ground, particularly in Sarajevo, did not improve.
Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, added his voice to the warnings after Britain and France agreed a compromise formula with the US: 'We will have to see if a plan can be devised - I think it probably can - to say to the Bosnian Serbs outside Sarajevo and to say to others . . . look, if you sabotage the peace talks, if you prevent the humanitarian effort, if you continue in the way that some of you have, then you are rendering yourselves liable to air strikes.'
Speaking in Vitez in central Bosnia, the Secretary of State for Defence, Malcolm Rifkind, said that British planes around former Yugoslavia were ready to intervene if necessary and air strikes would add a new and important dimension to the conflict. 'We won't hesitate to use them to protect our own people and there may be wider circumstances in which their use may become necessary.'
US determination to put pressure on President Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia was underlined by a confidential letter from Warren Christopher, the Secretary of State, to Boutros Boutros-Ghali, UN Secretary-General. It set out the objective of the air strike proposal last Saturday: 'Once agreement within Nato has been reached, we would deliver a strong warning to Milosevic and the Bosnian Serb leadership that they will face Nato air strikes at times and places of Nato's choosing if they fail to stop their unacceptable actions to strangle Sarajevo and other Muslim towns.'
British officials made clear, however, that the plan should satisfy four conditions: it should support, rather than cut across, the Geneva negotiations; help, rather than hinder, the humanitarian effort; not endanger troops on the ground, the bulk of whom are British and French; and send the right messages to the three parties on the ground.
Nato diplomats are due to meet again on Monday to finalise the proposal. To address the concern for United Nations Protection Force (Unprofor) troops on the ground, the French appeared to be winning agreement to involve Unprofor in the co-ordination of the strikes - even though the US had originally insisted this should be exclusively Nato's domain.
Dee Dee Myers, President Bill Clinton's spokeswoman, suggested that the agreement indicated that the allies had 'confirmed the US view that the situation is Bosnia-Herzogovina, and particularly in Sarajevo, was unacceptable'.
Calling the Nato decision a 'good step forward', Ms Myers insisted that it did not imply that there was a firm deadline for allied attacks to begin: 'I don't think there is a firm time line, but the clock is ticking.'
In Geneva, the task of the negotiators became even more complex after the Bosnian presidency, its ethnically mixed ruling body, finally broke apart: Croatian members withdrew in protest at a new Muslim offensive in central Bosnia. All three men accused the Bosnian President, Alija Izetbegovic, of ordering an ethnic cleansing by the predominantly Muslim army, saying that it had made their situation intolerable.
That left Mr Izetbegovic functioning in practice only as a negotiator for the Muslim interests, although conference officials said he would still be treated as a head of government.
The chaos within Bosnian ranks and a dangerous loss of momentum in the talks prompted Lord Owen and Thorvald Stoltenberg to ask President Milosevic and President Franjo Tudjman of Croatia to intervene late yesterday afternoon. Lord Owen said he was opposed to immediate air strikes, repeating his belief that singling out a group for punishment would be impolitic. 'All of them are sinners, there's not one of them out there that's completely guiltless.'
Repeated efforts by the mediators had failed to persuade Muslims, Serbs and Croats to keep talking on a proposed constitution, agreed in broad terms last Friday. Negotiations on maps of a Bosnia divided into three parts had also come to a halt. 'We believe that a settlement is possible but we won't get a settlement unless we get the three parties together again,' said John Mills, the conference spokesman.
Last night, President Clinton's envoy, Reginald Bartholomew, arrived in Geneva and went to the lakefront hotel where President Izetbegovic had remained in aggrieved seclusion throughout the day. He was expected to spell out the diplomatic and political restrictions on military action and to urge Mr Izetbegovic to return to serious negotiations.
Bosnian officials admitted yesterday that Serbs had captured the Bjelasnica peak south-west of Sarajevo. Serb forces were still attacking Mount Igman, one of the last heights overlooking Sarajevo in government hands.
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