Two US A-10 jets from Aviano, in northern Italy, carried out the strike, Nato said. Two French Mirages and Dutch jets were also involved in the sortie.
The United Nations force commander in Bosnia, General Sir Michael Rose, requested air strikes after Serb forces seized heavy weapons from a depot guarded by Ukrainian peace-keepers, and then fired on a UN helicopter.
'A Nato aircraft engaged a target of the Bosnian Serb army that was in violation of the total exclusion zone,' Gen Rose said in Sarajevo last night. 'The target was an M-18, 76mm tank buster. It was engaged by cannon and destroyed, we think.'
The Bosnian Serb authorities were given an hour to evacuate personnel from 'all possible targets within' the zone, because 'we do not see it as our business to kill anybody'. The gun was positioned 12km south of the airport; Gen Rose said Nato deliberately chose a target remote from populated areas.
He warned that Nato would strike again unless all weapons in violation of the zone were returned by today. The Bosnian Serb chief of staff, General Milivoj Milovanovic, had agreed to return all weapons to the collection site, and Gen Rose 'hoped' the operation was under way last night.
The attack was the first use of Nato air power in Bosnia since an abortive attempt to defend the besieged enclave of Gorazde in April. This angered Moscow, which felt it had not been consulted. Since then Russia has signed an agreement
with Nato, been brought into the Contact Group, and lost its patience with the Bosnian Serbs.
The Russian Foreign Ministry said the Bosnian Serbs had provoked the air strikes. 'It is deplorable that the Serbs themselves gave grounds for this turn of events, acting recently, it would seem, on the principle 'the worse things get, the better for us',' a spokesman said. But he stopped short of endorsing the Nato action. The US welcomed the strikes. A State Department spokesman said: 'The United States welcomes this determination to respond to such violations (of UN Security Council resolutions).'
As well as underpinning the UN presence on Bosnia, the strike is clearly intended to demonstrate to the Bosnian Serbs that they are isolated and outgunned. But if attacks on UN forces intensify, it is not clear that Nato would be able to continue with air raids indefinitely. News of the strikes was followed by a sharp increase in sniper fire in Sarajevo last night, and a series of explosions, some apparently caused by mortars banned from the 20km exclusion zone.
A Bosnian Serb officer told the UN his army needed the weapons to counter a Bosnian government offensive north of Sarajevo, but this was dismissed by the UN.
The air strike rounded off a dire week for the Bosnian Serb leadership in Pale, which was apparently abandoned by its mentor in Belgrade on Thursday. The decision by Serbia to cut political and economic ties with its clients in Bosnia, if implemented, would leave them entirely isolated and bereft of arms and fuel supplies. The question now is whether Nato's actions will persuade Pale of the wisdom of accepting the latest international peace plan or whether Radovan Karadzic and Gen Ratko Mladic decide instead to fight to the end.
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