Sarajevo air strikes forestalled by Russians: Serbs pull back guns but Muslims fear Moscow's troops will freeze siege lines

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BOSNIAN SERB forces started pulling back many of their guns from the mountains around Sarajevo last night, three days before Nato's threat to bomb them comes into force, after Russia pledged to provide peace-keeping troops in the city.

Lieutenant-General Sir Michael Rose, commander of United Nations forces in Bosnia, said last night: 'We have certainly got evidence that many weapons were moving out today. Today there was a particular exodus. I do believe we are in a changing environment here, that people really do want peace.'

Russia claimed last night that Nato's threatened air strikes against the Bosnian Serbs were no longer needed. 'We can say that any air strikes on Bosnian Serb positions are ruled out, for the simple reason there will be no targets for these strikes to hit,' Russia's special envoy, Vitaly Churkin, said.

The Russian initiative is likely to prolong the UN-brokered ceasefire and deter Nato air attacks, but it is premature to predict the end of the Bosnian capital's siege. By sending troops and helping the UN to interpose itself along Serbian and Muslim lines, the Russians could be freezing the military situation to the Serbs' advantage.

The presence of Russian troops in and around Sarajevo will make air strikes extremely difficult and increase Muslim fears that Moscow's real motive was to block a Nato-led operation to break the siege.

The Bosnian Serb leader, Radovan Karadzic, said after meeting Mr Churkin: 'We do think that war in Sarajevo is finally over.' However, Nato sources said the alliance would maintain its threat to bomb any guns not withdrawn from around Sarajevo by midnight on Sunday. They added that the Serb- Russian accord would not have been reached without the Nato ultimatum.

Mr Churkin said 800 Russian troops would be dispatched to the area immediately. However, the proposal - contained in a letter from the Russian President Boris Yeltsin to Mr Karadzic and his Serbian mentor, Slobodan Milosevic - and the mention of Russian troops appeared to catch the UN command in Sarajevo completely by surprise. A senior UN official said: 'This is unilateral and has nothing to do with Unprofor.'

According to reports, Mr Churkin plans to send 400 peace-keepers now on duty in Croatia and 400 troops in Russia to the Bosnian Serb 'capital' of Pale, 12 miles outside the city. The UN's plan to patrol the current ceasefire and monitor the removal or handover of heavy weapons had not included sending troops there.

The Bosnian government is angry. 'The Russians are not neutral in the case of Bosnia- Herzegovina,' said the Vice-President, Ejup Ganic. 'They didn't go along with the peace process. We're certainly not welcoming the Russians to guard Serbian weapons.'

When the Nato deadline expires both sides are supposed to have surrendered heavy weapons to designated areas, where they can be monitored by armed UN soldiers or, in the Serbs' case, have moved them at least 20km (12 miles) outside Sarajevo.

Britain will redeploy troops from Vitez and elsewhere in Bosnia to Sarajevo in response to the UN's call for more help to police the ceasefire, the Secretary of State for Defence, Malcolm Rifkind, said yesterday. However, Britain is sending only 60 extra troops - who will man mortar-locating radars - in response to the UN's call for 3,000.

Welcoming the Russian plan, Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, said: 'There is now a much better chance than before of avoiding air strikes.'

Jonathan Aitken, Minister for Defence Procurement, claimed a diplomatic victory for John Major last night. He told the Commons the Russian move arose directly from talks in Moscow between Mr Major and Mr Yeltsin. The Prime Minister was to be congratulated 'on what has clearly been a successful diplomatic initiative on his part'.

Mr Major told BBC's Nine O'Clock News: 'I had the opportunity of discussing Russian influence over the Serbs the other day with President Yeltsin.'

Defence ministers of the key Western states are to meet in Aviano, northern Italy, on Sunday morning, hours before the ultimatum's expiry. Mr Rifkind and counterparts from the United States, the Netherlands, Italy and France represent those countries with air forces likely to be involved in any strikes.

(Photograph omitted)