Ten days to war or peace: As Nato prepares to fire in anger for the first time, Serb gunners defy ultimatum in Sarajevo. Analysis by Tony Barber

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The Independent Online
TEN DAYS FROM NOW, Britain and its Western allies may be at war with the Serbs of Bosnia-Herzegovina. True, this would not be a conflict like the 1991 Gulf war against Iraq. If it comes to a fight, Western governments are determined to limit their involvement to selective air strikes against Bosnian Serb targets around Sarajevo. But a war it would be, none the less, conducted under the auspices of the United Nations but against the wishes of Russia and without the endorsement of China, two of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council.

In the countdown to midnight on 20/21 February, several factors will decide whether or not this war will break out. These factors are a combination of events on the ground in the Sarajevo area, and the interpretations that foreign governments choose to place on those events.

IF Western governments take the view that the Bosnian Serbs have honoured the ceasefire declared around Sarajevo on Wednesday and have withdrawn their artillery to positions 20km (12 miles) from the centre of the Bosnian capital, then there will be no war. But if the Bosnian Serbs make no attempt to withdraw their weapons, and especially if they continue to fire upon Sarajevo, then there seems no way to avoid war.

IF Russia succeeds in taking the crisis to a Security Council meeting, it is possible that debates there will influence Western policy and Nato air strikes in Bosnia will be averted. But if the West sticks to its present view that the UN has already provided sufficient authorisation for air strikes, then it is unlikely that a Security Council meeting can prevent Nato going war.

IF the Bosnian Serbs, supported by Serbia, produce new proposals for a peace settlement - perhaps confined to Sarajevo's status, but perhaps covering wider Bosnian issues - then it is possible that the West will allow more time for talks before sending in its aircraft. But if Western governments decide that the Bosnian Serbs can be trusted no longer to match words with deeds, then war there will be.

IF pressure grows on the West to demonstrate beyond doubt that it was Bosnian Serb gunners who committed last Saturday's massacre of Sarajevo civilians, then Nato's

10-day deadline may fall flat. But if the West decides that the overall Bosnian Serb record in the war is so atrocious that the specific responsibility for Saturday's slaughter does not matter, then we are closer to war.

IF skirmishes break out around Sarajevo between now and 20 February and it appears that forces loyal to Bosnia's Muslim-led government share the blame, then it is possible that Nato will not stick rigidly to its deadline. But if the West insists that the Bosnian Serbs are fundamentally the guilty party, then air strikes are likely.

There is no graver matter than going to war, and no situation more fraught with risks than one in which the ultimate aim remains unclear. Nato has set itself the task of removing, by negotiation and pressure if possible, by bombing if necessary, the Bosnian Serb heavy weaponry around Sarajevo. However, Nato has left a degree of uncertainty about its wider hopes and objectives for Bosnia. Furthermore, Nato has hardly talked at all in public about the implications of its actions for the rest of the former Yugoslavia, or indeed for the rest of the Balkans.

The next 10 days may have a familiar feel to anyone who remembers the build-up to the war against Iraq. Then, too, there was a deadline. It passed, and the West struck. If history repeats itself, it will not be long before we know whether this time the West has calculated the risks correctly.

(Photograph and map omitted)