Serb tanks move to strangle Sarajevo: UN peacekeepers retreat under fire as main road between Bosnian capital and airport is severed

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SERBIAN tanks closed the windpipe for Sarajevo's 400,000 trapped residents yesterday after seizing control of the main road linking the Bosnian capital and its airport.

The seizure, in violation of a United Nations-brokered agreement signed on Monday, came amid the worst fighting for weeks, exposing the UN peacekeepers' impotence and testing as never before the resolve of the international community.

The attacks formed a backcloth to increasingly irrelevant talks in Geneva between the three ethnic communities. Bosnian Serb leaders, increasing pressure on the Muslim-led Bosnian government, offered safe passage to all citizens wishing to leave the city.

There are increasingly strong hints that the UN, Nato and the Western European Union are considering the use of force in Bosnia to contain Serbian expansion. Senior Nato officials in Brussels warned this week the conflict must be contained before it spills into other areas, such as Kosovo.

President-elect Bill Clinton, said yesterday that he would not rule out the use of US military action in the former Yugoslavia.

However, Malcolm Rifkind, Secretary of State for Defence, speaking in Bosnia to British troops, said that to impose peace in Bosnia by the use of force would be 'inappropriate because I think the scale of what would be involved would be dramatic. It's been suggested that over 100,000 soldiers might be required.'

Serb tanks on the airport road reportedly fired several rounds into apartment blocks in the neighbouring Muslim-held suburb of Dobrinja, wounding dozens of residents. UN peacekeepers who approached the Serbs to ask them to withdraw were fired on and forced to scuttle to safety.

The Serb attack came after a surprise offensive this week by Muslim and Croat Bosnian forces, aimed at the strategically vital area around Trebevic hill. Tanjug, the Serbian news agency, insisted yesterday that the attempt on the hill, which oversees the link road between the Serbian military headquarters at Lukavica and the Serbian governmental headquarters at Pale, had ended in total defeat for the Bosnian forces.

The upsurge in fighting dashed hopes of resuming aid flights to Sarajevo, upon which the city's residents depend for survival. The airport has been closed for almost a week, after two UN aid aircraft were shot at.

Amid worsening bloodshed, the latest peace talks between the ethnic communities took on an ever more farcical note. While Sarajevo burned and exploded, Bosnia's ethnic leaders unfurled contradictory 'maps' detailing proposals to slice the republic into watertight ethnic zones, misleadingly called 'cantons'.

The failure of the talks, led by Lord Owen and Cyrus Vance, to yield any results, coupled with the recent dramatic upsurge in fighting throughout the republic, is likely to strengthen international support for military intervention in Bosnia. In Paris, France's senior military commander, Admiral Jacques Lanxade, urged some form of armed intervention to stop the carnage.

'I hope we do not have to launch a major intervention in Bosnia but I believe it (the UN Security Council) is on the verge of introducing stronger constraints so that sanctions are really applied,' the admiral said.

'I believe we are going to have to use some measure of force, for example, by really interdicting flights over Bosnia,' he added.