Serbs step up war of nerves with Nato

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A DARK CLOUD of military intimidation and xenophobia descended upon the Balkans last night as the Bosnian Serb authorities drew closer to a full- scale confrontation with Nato and the United Nations. While the Bosnian Serbs held almost 200 UN personnel in effective detention and banned all American journalists from their territory, Nato aircraft buzzed Bosnian Serb forces after Tuzla airport was shelled.

Major Dacre Holloway, a UN Protection Force spokesman in Sarajevo, said 15 artillery rounds fell in and around Tuzla's UN-operated airfield and three more landed outside the main gate. He said Unprofor was officially blaming neither side for the shelling but added that UN military observers had said a Serbian artillery position in hills near the airport had targeted it in the past.

In response to the shelling, aircraft from the US, Britain, France and the Netherlands maintained a continuous presence over the Tuzla area for three hours, the UN said. Tuzla is the largest region under the Muslim-led Bosnian government's control. If Nato and the Bosnian Serbs were to clash there it would mark a major step down the road to war.

The air operation was intended to signal that Nato might attack Bosnian Serb targets, as it did in the eastern Muslim enclave of Gorazde on Sunday and Monday. 'I think the Serbs would be making a mistake to start treating the United Nations and Nato forces as adverse combatants,' President Bill Clinton said in Washington.

In what looked like a well-planned reaction to Nato's air strikes, Serbian forces seized 15 Canadian peace-keeping troops near Sarajevo and threw an armed ring around a UN compound guarding Serbian artillery handed over in February. In Belgrade, militants threw petrol bombs at the offices of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees but caused no injuries, a UN spokeswoman said. Dozens of UN military observers on Bosnian Serb-held territory were under what amounted to house arrest, and scores of other UN troops were marooned in aid convoys surrounded by Serbs. The UN said that, out of 53 military observers, 28 had been detained but had been heard from, 17 had been detained incommunicado, and eight were unaccounted for. Eleven French charity workers remained in detention at a Serbian barracks in Sarajevo on what the French government denounced as trumped-up charges of smuggling ammunition to the Muslims.

In all, about 200 foreigners' fates were in the balance as tension increased between Western countries and the Bosnian Serbs. With peace talks suspended and the Serbs adamant that they view the UN as 'a potentially hostile force', it appeared that neither side could back down without loss of face. Some diplomats at Nato's Brussels headquarters said they were worried that the alliance's operations were spinning out of control and there was a danger of a lurch into conflict.

The Serbs maintained a blockade of all UN military and civilian traffic in and out of Sarajevo and the rest of Serb-held Bosnia. Mines and roadblocks reinforced their grip. But the UN Secretary- General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, said the UN would not hesitate to order more air strikes around Gorazde and in other parts of Bosnia if necessary.

The Bosnian Serb news agency, SRNA, reported that, as of yesterday, all American journalists had been banned from Bosnian Serb-held areas.

(Photograph omitted)