French itch to open fire after new Serb shelling: As Sarajevo's besiegers taunt UN and peace talks make 'some progress', calls to save the city flood in

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The Independent Online
SERBIAN FORCES besieging Sarajevo moved closer to provoking a fight with United Nations peace- keepers yesterday by firing on French soldiers.

France called on the UN and Nato yesterday to provide air cover as a matter of urgency to protect UN peace-keepers in Bosnia. A Nato air force, including 12 British Jaguars capable of ground-attack roles, has assembled in Italy to support UN troops.

But the UN in Sarajevo is afraid of upsetting delicate talks between the three Bosnian factions in Geneva, where the Bosnian President, Alija Izetbegovic, last night said there was 'some progress'. The 90-minute meeting brought Mr Izetbegovic face to face for the first time with his arch- enemy, Radovan Karadzic, leader of the Bosnian Serbs, and the Bosnian Croat leader, Mate Boban.

Following a sustained mortar attack on a French base on Sunday, seven tank and mortar rounds fired from Serbian positions on the hills round Sarajevo exploded only 50 yards from a group of French UN troops at work outside the television centre, forcing them to run for cover.

The latest bombardment of UN forces could be a further sign that the Bosnian Serbs are gearing up for a dangerous game of brinkmanship with the UN, to stop peace-keepers deploying around Sarajevo and turning what is left of the Bosnian capital into a 'safe area'. If so, it could not have come at a worse time. The French are very angry about the first attack on Sunday, and itching to take out their brazen assailants.

On Sunday the Serbs fired 68 tank and mortar rounds at 100 French troops - an attack which provoked fury from the new commander of UN forces in Bosnia, General Francis Briquemont. He gave UN troops in Sarajevo permission to open fire if attacked again. 'This is the last time we restrain ourselves,' he said. 'I have told my commanders they must reply immediately.'

But last night there was no sign of retaliation. An attack on Serbian besiegers could give the Mr Karadzic an excuse to torpedo the talks, which the international mediators Lord Owen and Thorvald Stoltenberg see as the last chance for a settlement.

If the Serbs open fire again, they run a high risk of inciting a counterblast from the frustrated French. UN officials in the city have let it be known they have brought in fresh heavy weaponry - 24 powerful 90mm anti-tank guns - to repel any challenge by the Serbs. But the Serbs want their piece of Sarajevo, and time is running out for them to seize the half of the city they claim for their ethnic-based mini-state. They may be ready to go to the brink in a war of nerves with the UN to get it.

A battle between Serbs and the UN would answer the prayers of Bosnia's hard-pressed Muslim-led government. Whether it would much interest ordinary people in Sarajevo is another matter. They were running for cover last night as a day-old ceasefire broke down amid heavy renewed shelling. The battle for the strategic points of Zuc hill and Mount Igman to the north and west of the city got going in all its former fury.

The Bosnia poem, page 6

French demand to UN, page 9

Pilgrimage to Medjugorje, page 21