Serbs 'going to the brink' as trickle of guns are handed in

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UN EFFORTS to demilitarise Sarajevo and forestall Nato air strikes against Bosnian Serb positions around the city remained on shaky ground yesterday as the Serbs resumed a token handover of arms.

The Muslim-dominated Bosnian government expressed concern that the Serbs were just buying time to prevent the bombing that could begin next Monday if the guns ringing the Bosnian capital are not moved. The Serbs turned in five heavy weapons, bringing the total to a meagre 23 guns - 18 Serbian and five Bosnian.

Haris Silajdzic, the Bosnian Prime Minister, said: 'I am afraid that such an approach and an attempt to appease the aggression further would bring a hardening of the Serbian position.'

One Western diplomat in Belgrade said yesterday that the Bosnian Serbs were involved in a game of brinkmanship. 'I personally believe (the Bosnian Serb leader Radovan) Karadzic will go to the edge but will stop before going over.'

With the four-day truce in the Bosnian capital still shaky, the Netherlands yesterday joined Britain and the US in evacuating dependants of its embassy staff in Belgrade, while Germany issued instructions for its embassy's dependants to leave as soon as possible.

General Sir Michael Rose, the senior UN officer in Sarajevo, blamed Muslim forces for breaches of the ceasefire on Saturday night. Accusing the Muslims of trying to provoke the Serbs, General Rose said: 'I think this point should be made quite clear.' While the Bosnian Serbs have rejected Nato's ultimatum, demanding restraints on the Muslim infantry, their guns have been almost silent since Thursday. One artillery round was fired yesterday, with no injuries.

General Rose, trying to get his men in place while the sky is still clear of shrapnel and bullets, reinforced the French-occupied ceasefire lines with the first contingent of a 1,000-strong Malaysian battalion. He said he planned to form a double protection line, with French troops facing the Serbs and Malaysians facing the Muslim-dominated government side.

John Major leaves for Moscow today for talks in which he will seek to convince President Boris Yeltsin that Nato's threat of bombing does not mean the alliance is seeking to take sides.

As Malcolm Rifkind, the Secretary of State for Defence, acknowledged that Russian fears were understandable, Mr Major was intending to make it clear that the allies and Russia had a common interest in peace in Bosnia.

Amid continued signs of anxiety among Tory backbenchers about the the Nato ultimatum, Mr Rifkind emphasised his confidence in General Rose.

He also said that the role of UN commanders on the ground would be extremely important in any decision to launch air strikes, because of the risk to UN forces and aid workers.

'I am sure the views of all the nations concerned will continue to be considered.' Mr Rifkind said it was 'not unusual' for different countries to offer different degrees of support for international action. The decision conformed with a UN Security Council resolution of several months ago.

Westerners evacuated, page 8

Leading article, page 15

Letters, page 15