Nato gives Serbs Gorazde ultimatum: Shells falling on town as attackers agree to ceasefire and withdrawal

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The Independent Online
NATO yesterday threatened Bosnian Serbs with immediate air attacks unless they stopped firing on Gorazde, and gave them until a minute after midnight tonight to pull back two miles from the town's centre. Failure to do so could again provoke massive air strikes.

Hours later the United Nations special envoy, Yasushi Akashi, said last night in Belgrade after meeting Bosnian Serb leaders that the army commanders had agreed to a ceasefire from midday today and to the withdrawal of arms from around the besieged Muslim town. At the same time the UN High Commissioner for Refugees staff in Gorazde said the town was being shelled.

Alliance sources said ambassadors from the 16 Nato nations had agreed to use Western air power to protect the 'safe areas' of Srebrenica, Tuzla, Bihac and Zepa, as well as Gorazde and to impose exclusion zones so Bosnian Serb forces would have to withdraw.

Alliance ambassadors meeting in Brussels unanimously agreed to an American initiative to protect the besieged town. Nato has seized control of the operation from the UN after unhappiness over the way previous air operations were handled. But Lieutenant-General Sir Michael Rose, the British officer in charge of the UN Protection Force in Bosnia, retains a veto.

After several hours of discussion, Nato issued the three-pronged ultimatum to the Bosnian Serbs: attacks against Gorazde should stop immediately and forces should pull back three kilometres from the town's centre by 0001 GMT on Sunday 24 April; from that time UN forces, humanitarian relief convoys and medical assistance teams should be free to enter and leave Gorazde unimpeded; if not, the commander of Nato's southern European forces 'is authorised to conduct air strikes against Bosnian Serb heavy weapons and other military targets within a 20-kilometre radius of the centre of Gorazde'.

Manfred Worner, Nato's secretary-general, said: 'The barbaric attacks against defenceless civilians in Gorazde are an outrage.' He underlined that Nato could now take the initiative to launch strikes whereas before the right to call in close air support lay with the UN.

A key Nato concern about a letter from the UN Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, this week was that it appeared to give more authority to the UN over strikes than Nato was prepared to cede.

However, the US ambassador, Robert Hunter, emphasised the plan agreed yesterday came after a US initiative. 'Last night, President (Bill) Clinton decided enough was enough,' he said. Mr Hunter emphasised Nato representatives had moved swiftly because of the importance of sending a firm signal to the Bosnian Serbs. 'We needed to get out something quickly that would stop the killing.'

Mr Clinton was under intense domestic political pressure to act effectively in Bosnia after the humiliating failure of last week's air strikes. Critics have accused him of moving only in response to opinion polls but, given his commitment not to deploy American ground troops, his options are limited.

Before the latest ceasefire was announced it was still not clear how Mr Clinton would react if the Bosnian Serbs continued attacks in the face of air strikes. The Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, has told a divided Congress that American leadership is at stake. Senator Sam Nunn, powerful chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, says the US should be prepared for escalation which might involve air strikes on Serbia.

In a joint press conference yesterday with Andreas Papandreou, the Prime Minister of Greece and Serbia's closest ally, Mr Clinton had said he expected a political and not a military solution to the crisis.

The President implied that an international conference on Bosnia, to be attended by Russia, the west Europeans and the US, might take place next week. On bombing Serbia, as suggested by Mr Nunn, Mr Clinton said he opposed it for the moment because he believed the Bosnian Serbs would negotiate when they saw Nato was serious. Other objections included the need for good relations with Russia.

Despite some differences between the allies in the past over air strikes, there was no dissension yesterday from the position agreed.

The Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd, said last night before news of the ceasefire: 'The war is not going to be ended by action from the air. The end will have to be a negotiated settlement. We believe this ceaseless savagery in Gorazde can be brought to an end in the way Nato has now decided.'

The British embassy in Belgrade will today move non-essential staff and dependants of officials out of Yugoslavia.

Hospital 'hell', page 8