Nato blitz puts Serbs in turmoil

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The Independent Online


After three years of vain appeals and toothless threats to the Serb rebels in Bosnia, the Western world made good on its many words of warning yesterday, unleashing a relentless series of air raids and artillery barrages intended to punish the shelling of Sarajevo. Nato aircraft flew more than 200 sorties in an operation that represented not only a turning point in the 40-month Bosnian war but the most sustained military action in the Western alliance's history.

The Bosnian Serbs reacted with customary defiance, their guns firing at United Nations bases and shooting down a French Mirage jet. Seven European Union personnel - including three Spaniards, one Irishman and a Dutchman - were reported killed in Bosnian Serb territory in unexplained circumstances.

The Bosnian Serb leader, Radovan Karadzic, boasted that a total Serb victory was in sight, and condemned the Nato strikes as "a precedent that could jeopardise world peace and trigger the third world war". However, other signs suggested last night that the Bosnian Serbs were in turmoil and utterly stunned by the scale of Nato's response to the shelling of a Sarajevo market on Monday that killed 37 people.

The Serbian authorities in Belgrade, who have been trying to push their Serb brethren in Bosnia into a settlement, said that from now on they would represent the Bosnian Serbs in peace negotiations. The Serbian Information Minister, Ratomir Vico, said the Bosnian Serb leadership had agreed to form a joint peace team with Belgrade.

President Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia held a long meeting in Belgrade with Richard Holbrooke, the US envoy pushing a new peace plan, prompting speculation about a possible breakthrough in negotiations.

Nato's Secretary-General, Willy Claes warned the Bosnian Serbs that the air strikes would continue today and later in the week until they moved their heavy weapons out of range of Sarajevo. General Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb commander, rejected the demand, saying last night: "There can be no question about such matters via fax messages. We shall remain in our positions.''

"The attacks will most likely continue, but so will the political initiative," said Momcilo Krajisnik, the speaker of the Bosnian Serb "parliament''.

Information about the Nato attacks - which involved more than 60 jets and the heavy guns of the British, French and Dutch Rapid Reaction Force - was sparse, with most phone lines to the region cut. The aircraft struck at a wide range of targets, including air defences, gun positions, command bunkers and communications links around the "safe areas'' of Sarajevo, Gorazde and Tuzla.

Nato also attacked a Bosnian Serb radar site near the southern city of Mostar. French and British artillery deployed on Mount Igman, west of Sarajevo, fired at Serb guns which have targeted the city during a siege that has lasted more than three years and has killed thousands of people.

UN and Nato officials reported heavy damage to many Bosnian Serb targets, including a munitions factory at Vogosca north-west of Sarajevo and an ammunition dump at Lukavica, a suburb where the Bosnian Serb army has its main barracks. A second ammunition dump, at Hadzici, about 20 miles southwest of Sarajevo, also was reported to have been destroyed.

The Serbs returned fire against the Rapid Reaction Force but fell well short of their targets. Bosnian Serb radio reported "immense damage" and "at least seven dead".

Television pictures showed the French Mirage plunging towards a hillside near Pale, the Bosnian Serb "capital'', trailing flames and smoke to cheers of a watching crowd. Mr Karadzic leaned out of a window at the Pale television building and screamed: "Find the pilots, find the pilots!"

Nato officials would not comment on reports that two parachutes were seen ejecting from the French aircraft. But they are believed to have launched a search and rescue mission. Bosnian Serb security sources claimed last night that the pilots had been captured.

"We will defend ourselves with all means at our disposal and we will down aggressor planes that come within our range," Mr Karadzic promised earlier in day in the border town of Zvornik. "What is most important is that the people's will for a state will harden ... the West's calculations with the Serbs are wrong."

But there is little sympathy in Belgrade for Mr Karadzic, who has repeatedly refused Serbia's demand that he accept international peace proposals and thus end sanctions on Yugoslavia. The only official response to the Nato action came in a magisterial statement from the Yugoslav government which called for a swift end to the air strikes and a return to negotiatins, but offered no help to the Bosnian Serbs.

After his talks with Mr Milosovic ended, Mr Hobrooke said the formation of a joint Belgrade-Pale team was promising, and that he would go to Croatia today to discuss the matters raised with Mr Milosevic.

Nicholas Burns, a US State Department spokesman, said Mr Holbrooke's message to the Serbs was clear: "The tide of war has turned against them. Their dream of a 'Greater Serbia' is no more. It is time to face the responsibility of peace.

"The Bosnian Serbs, especially after the events of the last 12 hours, ought to have concluded there is no military victory in sight for them."

The Bosnian government and the people of Sarajevo reacted with relief to the dramatic events. Residents hung out of their windows to watch the fireworks, then took cover as dawn broke to the sound of retaliatory Serb shelling.

"The world has finally done what it had to do," President Alija Izetbegovic said joyfully. "The path towards peace is now open ... in Sarajevo I will do all I can to achieve peace on a just basis."

A further danger to the Serbs now is that the Bosnian army might try to take advantage of the new military balance created by Nato's destruction of the Serbs' massive advantage in artillery pieces. The UN's aim was to safeguard the civilian population; a side-effect might be to shatter the three-year siege.

Hasan Muratovic, a Bosnian minister, said: "We shall restrain ourselves from any attack in the zones of Nato action." . But as the Serbs ponder their choices - to sue for peace or risk all-out war - they must wonder how long that restraint can last.

Leading article, page 14

2:00 am

60 Nato combat aircraft take off from US aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt in the Adriatic and bases in Italy.

2:30 am

Aircraft begin attacking air defences, heavy weapons and munitions dumps in the Sarajevo region.

4:00 am

Second wave of planes attacks munitions dumps and other targets.

4:30 am

Artillery on Mount Igman opens fire.

7:30 am

Nato planes are replaced - all aircraft return safely to base.

10:00 am

Third wave of planes carries out air raids on Serb positions around government- held towns of Gorazde, Tuzla and Mostar.

1:00 pm

Fourth wave of attacks carries on through afternoon.