Bosnian Serbs fail to hit Nato planes

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Nato jets sent to hit Bosnian Serb targets yesterday afternoon returned safely to base last night after having failed to find a target and being fired at by surface-to-air missiles.

The action followed a request for close air support after Bihac, a UN-protected ``safe area'', was shelled. At the same time, Bosnian Serb leaders, whose forces are holding a quarter of the ``safe area'', considered a government proposal for a nation-wide ceasefire.

Four shells hit Bihac town centre, in ``flagrant and deliberate violation'' of the safe area, prompting Yasushi Akashi, the UN envoy, to call ``for close air support . . . as a precautionary measure and in response to this deliberate violation,'' said a UN spokeswoman in Zagreb. ``But no target was identified . . . so the planes went back to base. There was cloud cover and a number of other problems.''

The spokeswoman emphasised that the jets, which flew over the area for several hours, had orders to strike if Serb targets had been identified. This suggests Nato might launch another attack today.

Mr Akashi had said he might have to order air strikes if ``absolutely necessary'', but did not want to harm the diplomatic process. General Sir Michael Rose, the UN commander in Bosnia, has been reluctant to invoke Nato air power for fear of endangering peace-keepers.

As the Bosnian Serb leadership was meeting yesterday to consider a proposal for a nation-wide ceasefire, General Manoljo Milovanovic, who is leading the attack on Bihac, urged his enemies to surrender. ``If General Dudakovic [the Bosnian commander in Bihac] does not accept this deal, he will bear the consequences of that move for further hardship and suffering of the local Muslim population, as well as his troops.''

However, Bihac residents are unlikely to be impressed by General Milovanovic's offer to ``guarantee your safety, your lives''. A UN aid worker who visited the town yesterday said civilians were terrified. ``People are desperate, crying openly. They are extremely emotional,'' said Monique Tuffelli of the UN High Commissoner for Refugees. ``It's the worst situation these people have experienced since the war began.''

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