Serbs shoot down British jet as all-out conflict looms

THE United Nations and the Bosnian Serbs edged close to all-out conflict last night after Bosnian Serb forces shot down a Royal Navy Sea Harrier jet over the Muslim-held 'safe area' of Gorazde and their tanks rolled into the town.

In the town thousands of terrified Muslims were hiding in cellars to avoid the shelling.

UN commanders ordered air strikes against the Bosnian Serb tanks but according to officials poor weather prevented Nato jets from carrying out the bombing raids.

The Defence Secretary, Malcolm Rifkind, said he understood the strikes were called for by Lieutenant-General Sir Michael Rose, British commander of UN forces in Bosnia, as shells fell on a local hospital. 'My understanding . . . is that the Harriers were called in by the UN because of an artillery attack on Gorazde. I've heard suggestions that a hospital had appeared to have been targeted and in these circumstances close air support was called for,' Mr Rifkind said.

Three tank rounds were reported to have hit the hospital, after which UN observers made contact with the Serbs accusing them of a gross violation of normal standards. The Serbs said the tank firing at the hospital was not theirs and the UN gave them a 15-minute deadline to destroy the tank.

Unprofor officials said cloud cover prevented allied pilots identifying targets, and during the delay caused by the weather, the Harrier was shot down by a missile. Other planes were called in to give close air support, but no ordnance was dropped because of poor weather and ground fire.

The UN special envoy to former Yugoslavia, Yasushi Akashi, said that it would be meaningless for Unprofor to remain in Bosnia 'unless there was serious and manifest intention by the Bosnian Serb army supported by clear action and co-operation on the ground'. A UN statement said Mr Akashi was reviewing the future role of Unprofor in Bosnia and a report would be presented to the UN Security Council soon.

In Gorazde, radio hams reported Serb tanks in the streets and said defenders could hold out only for a few hours. The tanks were firing on residential buildings and Gorazde defences were crumbling, Sarajevo radio reported. The Bosnian Serb commander, General Ratko Mladic, who is personally directing the attack on the town, was quoted by Belgrade's B92 radio as saying that his forces would have completed the capture of the town by today. 'The town is full of grim- looking (Bosnian Muslim) soldiers, which indicates that the suburbs have fallen,' a UN official said.

In other ominous signs that war looms closer, Serbs fired at and hit a plane carrying the UN commander for former Yugoslavia, General Bertrand de Lapresle, as it landed at Sarajevo airport yesterday.

UN officials also said yesterday that the two British soldiers who were injured in the Serb attack on Gorazde on Friday had been deliberately targeted after being identified as UN personnel. One died later of his wounds after being airlifted out to a UN hospital in Sarajevo. He was Corporal Fergus Rennie, 28, single, from Reading, Berkshire.

The attacks on the British soldiers mark a severe escalation of the policy of harassment carried out by the Serbs against UN peace-keepers in Bosnia, about 200 of whom are thought to be held hostage.

It has also emerged that General Rose called for air strikes on Friday to protect the UN personnel in the town. But his request was refused. Fears for the safety of the UN hostages, and a reluctance in Washington to anger the Russians, meant that the Serbian advance into Gorazde was carried out while Nato jets flew harmlessly overhead.

The Bosnian Serbs, furious with General Rose for ordering the first air strikes against them early last week, have turned withering political fire against him, all but demanding that the UN sack him. The Bosnian Serb Army command accused him yesterday of being haughty, inflexible, and a figure incompatible with the peace process.

Last night the US Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, telephoned his Russian counterpart, Andrei Kozyrev, in an attempt to avert Nato air strikes aginst the Bosnian Serbs, Itar-Tass news agency said.

Mr Kozyrev left Moscow yesterday for the Yugoslav capital, Belgrade, to discuss the crisis. He joins his deputy, Vitaly Churkin, Russia's envoy for the former Yugoslavia, who is currently trying to mediate.

A senior administration official in Washington said last night the United States believed 'some progress' had been made in ending the siege of Gorazde. The official said his optimism involved behind-the-scenes efforts involving the special US envoy to Bosnia Charles Redman, Mr Churkin, and the United Nations. He declined to elaborate but dismissed a suggestion that UN policies dealing with Gorazde had failed.

TIMETABLE

Sunday 10 April: after a 10-day Serbian assault on the Muslim enclave of Gorazde, Nato F-16 planes attack a Serbian artillery command post in the area. Russia denounces the Nato strikes.

Monday: the Serbian offensive on Gorazde continues. Nato planes attack Serbian positions again, but some bombs fail to go off.

Thursday: Serbs keep almost 200 UN civilian and military personnel effective hostage in Bosnian Serb-held territory.

Friday: a British soldier is killed and another wounded as Serbs break down Gorazde's defences. Russia makes clear it will not join Nato's Partnership for Peace programme.

Saturday: a British Harrier plane is shot down over Gorazde.

Crippling blow, page 10

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