Nato steps up attacks on Serbs

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The Independent Online
Nato is today set to approve plans to defend the Bosnian army in Bihac with air strikes against Bosnian Serb forces for the first time. The move comes after strikes yesterday to eliminate Bosnian Serb air defences around the city.

Last night Nato remained tight-lipped about the details of the two attacks, each involving more than 20 aircraft, suggesting that more operations were possible at first light.

Admiral Leighton Smith, Nato's Commander Southern Europe, said that the first attack was in self-defence after Serb radars locked on to an ``escorted reconnaissance'' flight yesterday morning. More than 20 Nato aircraft from the US, Britain, France and the Netherlands converged on radars in the area at about 9.30am, the American planes firing anti-radar missiles.

The second raid, at about 1.45pm yesterday, was pre-planned and involved a similar mixed force, aimed at the main surface-to-air missile complex at Otoka.

UN Protection Force officials in Sarajevo said that General Sir Michael Rose, the UN commander in Bosnia, opposed the Nato strikes but was overruled. ``He actually tried to prevent it - he considered it as a kind of Bosnian Serb trap,'' one official said. ``He thought that if we reacted as Nato would, with air strikes, it would escalate the situation.''

Hours before yesterday's strikes, an aide to the Bosnian Serb leader, Radovan Karadzic, had warned General Rose: ``Should you attack us it means very, very bad news. If you hit us this means all-out war.''

The US is pushing hard for moves to underpin the Bosnian army, and US proposals were yesterday presented to ambassadors meeting in Brussels. But Britain and France, among other states, were wary of the idea, and it had to be referred back to national capitals for agreement today.

The Defence Secretary, Malcolm Rifkind, criticised Washington for demanding more air power while refusing to send ground troops to Bosnia. ``If you haven't been to Bosnia, it is very easy to be an armchair commentator without any practical knowledge of the consequences,'' he said.

Despite reservations in London and Paris - stemming from concerns about the safety of their peace-keeping troops - the signs were that the US proposals would be agreed. They would take Nato into new territory, defending the Bosnian army as well as civilians and peace-keepers. The US sees the battle for Bihac as ``the key to the war'', said a Nato source. ``This is the last throw of the dice.''

Bihac fighting, page 14

Leading article, page 21

Andrew Marr, page 23

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