Major considers air strikes option to force ceasefire: Bosnia's Serbs show signs of bowing to pressure as all leaders from former Yugoslavia agree to peace meeting

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THE GOVERNMENT was yesterday contemplating limited strikes against Serbian forces in Bosnia as John Major, backed by the Cabinet, prepared to resist US pressure for the lifting of the arms embargo against the Muslims.

President Bill Clinton is expected to finalise his own position on possible military intervention in Bosnia either today or tomorrow.

Warren Christopher, the US Secretary of State, will probably leave for consultations in London, Paris, Brussels and Moscow almost immediately afterwards, for what Mr Clinton said would be 'pretty aggressive consultations'.

With Raymond Seitz, the American Ambassador, sitting in the Commons gallery, the Prime Minister signalled deep British unease about any escalation of the military intervention in Bosnia, and emphasised the importance of maintaining the UN humanitarian aid convoys.

However, he said air strikes were not ruled out, and British officials said they could 'decisively impede the prosecution of the war by the Serbs'. Coupled with tighter sanctions, the Government believes limited air strikes may succeed in pressurising the Serbs to accept the Owen-Vance peace plans.

In fact, there are already signs that the Bosnian Serbs are ready to swallow their pride and accept the international peace plan they rejected just five days ago. After a meeting in Belgrade with Serbia's kingmaker and President, Slobodan Milosevic, Bosnian Serb leaders announced that their parliament would meet again next Wednesday to reconsider the Owen-Vance plan.

As the Commons debated the crisis a young man set himself alight in Parliament Square as a protest against the war in Bosnia. The unidentified man was taken to hospital in a helicopter ambulance and was last night in a critical condition .

Although some cabinet ministers privately doubt the wisdom of air strikes, senior cabinet sources denied there was any split when they were briefed yesterday by Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary.

Officials raised the possibility that air strikes might be carried out without withdrawing UN troops from the area, in spite of the threat by the French to pull out.

'It would not mean blowing the whistle, pulling everybody out and bringing them home. It would be based very heavily on the military on the ground, but it may be possible to carry on with the convoys a bit, but it would also mean keeping heads down,' said one senior government source.

Foreign Office sources said Britain had more fundamental objections to lifting the arms embargo against the Muslims and reaffirmed Mr Hurd's view - rejected by Baroness Thatcher - that it would produce a 'level killing field'.

In New York there have been strong signals that Britain would go so far as to use its power of veto in the Security Council against any American-sponsored resolution on lifting the arms embargo.

Labour leaders continued to press Mr Major for a more decisive ultimatum against the Serbs, but the overwhelming view among ministers and Tory MPs appeared against escalating military action.

There was widespread Tory support for Sir Edward Heath, the former prime minister, who said: 'The people in this country don't want us to go war. The don't want planes bringing back dead bodies . . . Why should there be any risk that we are going to be pushed into military action by a President of the United States?'

Sir Edward called for Lord Owen to resign because it was no good having a peace negotiator who was advocating war.

The Foreign Secretary said: 'We have to stick together. We must not allow the Atlantic alliance to fracture on this issue . . . The worst of all worlds would be half measures in Bosnia which salved consciences without saving lives.'

He also made it clear Britain would not be prepared to support UN demands for declaring 'safe havens' because that would require land forces, which have been firmly ruled out. Mr Hurd listed four objectives of any action: to secure acceptance of the Owen-Vance plan; to stop Serbian aggression; to relieve humanitarian suffering; and prevent the war spreading.

Serbs reconsider, page 10

Conor Cruise O'Brien, page 22

price of intervention, page 23