The Senate threw international Balkans policy into confusion by voting by 69 votes to 29 to end American observance of the UN ban on arms supplies to the Bosnian government. A senior Russian official immediately warned that, if the US supplied weapons to the Muslim side, Moscow would feel free to re-arm the Serbs, threatening to turn the conflict into a proxy East-West battle.
President Bill Clinton will certainly veto the Senate move but there could be enough support in both houses of Congress to force through the change of policy in coming weeks. Two-thirds majorities in both houses - including 67 votes in the Senate - are needed to quash a presidential veto.
The Bosnian government welcomed the vote but the White House spokesman, Mike McCurry, said. "Good luck to all of us [if this vote] survives a veto, because there are going to be an awful of people who are going to end up dying as a result."
Both Britain and France have warned that a US breach of the embargo would spell the end of the UN military presence in Bosnia. A more immediate consequence of yesterday's vote will be to increase pressure from Washington for air strikes against the Bosnian Serbs to try to convince Congressional waverers that existing policies can work. The UN Secretary General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, yesterday agreed to give up his own veto on air action and allow decisions to be made by UN and Nato military commanders.
Earlier, the Bosnian government accused the international community of abandoning yet another UN "safe area" as fears grew for the beleaguered northern enclave of Bihac. Haris Silajdzic, the Bosnian Prime Minister, appealed to Croatia to intervene against a three-pronged Serb and rebel Muslim offensive.
As the first 1,500 Muslims "cleansed" from the eastern town of Zepa earlier this week reached friendly territory, the battle for Bihac appeared to be entering a critical phase. Up to 8,000 Muslims were said to have fled from their homes as Bos-nian Serb, Croatian Serb and rebel Muslim armies advanced from the north, east and west.
US officials reported that units of the Croatian army, including tanks, were massing to intervene in the battle on the Muslim side. According to one report, some Croatian units, backed by the Bosnian Croat militia, were already engaged in the fighting. There are fears that a large-scale intervention by Zagreb could bring Serbia proper into the battle and ignite a wider Balkan war.
Col Jasper Helsoe, the UN commander in Bihac, said that the Croatian Serbs had captured 85 sq km, including much of the area's prime farmland. He feared a humanitarian disaster: "There will be a snowball effect. There will be a catastrophic situation for the population."
Mr Boutros-Ghali yesterday endorsed a Nato plan to simplify the dual UN-Nato chain of command and permit large Western air strikes against the Bosnia Serbs if they move against Gorazde, the one remaining safe area in eastern Bosnia. But it remains unclear whether Western governments will take similar action to protect Bihac. The US government is pushing for such a guarantee. Nato officials were said yesterday to be studying "aerial options" in the Bihac region.
An overwhelming majority of Britons remain opposed to British troops being drawn into fighting in the Bosnian conflict, according to an opinion poll prepared for the Independent. Of 1,016 people interviewed last week by the Harris Research Centre, only 23 per cent believed that British troops should fight to protect the UN safe areas. However, most Britons also oppose the withdrawal of UK troops. More than half of those questioned wanted the British force to protect refugees, without fighting. Only 17 per cent favoured an outright retreat.
Battle for Bihac, page 10
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