UN and Nato bicker as Serbs defy ultimatum

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BOSNIAN Serb forces yesterday defied Nato's threat of air strikes and continued to shell the besieged Bosnian town of Gorazde. But the United Nations blocked Nato requests for action, triggering a furious row between the two organisations.

UN military observers in the town said infantry and artillery attacks continued while talks on a ceasefire that was to have taken force at midday went on. Last night a UN statement from Zagreb, issued after talks between the UN envoy Yasushi Akashi and Bosnian Serb leaders, said the Serbs had agreed to pull back their troops 3kms (two miles) from around Gorazde by midnight. They also agreed to the deployment of UN peace-keeping troops within the 3km zone by the same time. UN officials in Sarajevo said late last night they believed Bosnian Serb forces were preparing to pull back from Gorazde, but they did not think the UN deadline would be met. Senior United States officials speaking in Washington said they expected the UN to authorise air strikes if Bosnian Serbs failed to honour the ultimatum to withdraw.

Nato threatened on Friday night to hit the Serbs if they did not immediately cease attacking Gorazde. But instead the alliance found itself stuck yesterday in a fierce dispute with the UN when Mr Akashi prevented Nato from launching air strikes despite the Bosnian Serbs' assault.

Nato had deliberately drafted its threat in such a way as to exclude Mr Akashi from decision-making, since he had previously blocked strikes. Mr Akashi and Manfred Worner, Nato's Secretary-General, were reported yesterday to have had a 'difficult conversation' - in other words, a flaming row. The Nato commander for Southern Europe, Admiral Leighton Smith, met Mr Akashi in Zagreb after the disagreement.

According to radio reports, a shell a minute was landing in the town at the height of the fighting yesterday, with fresh attacks on the hospital and more civilian casualties. In a live radio link-up, Ismet Briga, the mayor of Gorazde, said more than 500 shells struck the town. At least five people died, and the hospital was again hit and was in flames. Witnesses said the main target appeared to be the Pobjeda ammunition factory. However, UN officials last night said that shelling had subsided and a convoy of UN troops had reached the town.

If Serb forces have not withdrawn 3kms from the town by this morning, strikes on a scale not seen since the Gulf war are likely to take place. More than 200 aircraft are in place but more may be needed, Brussels sources said.

Another complication was introduced yesterday when Russia sent ambivalent signals about the plan. Russia's Foreign Minister, Andrei Kozyrev, said that if the Serbs did not comply, air attacks would be necessary - but in New York, Yuli Vorontsov, Russian ambassador to the UN, said that Russia would not support air attacks at the other safe havens covered by the Nato decision.

With tension rising in the region, a fresh attempt will be made this week to revive the diplomatic track and square the remaining differences between the West and Russia. Senior representatives of the US, Russia, Britain, France and Germany are expected to meet, perhaps in London tomorrow. Warren Christopher, the US Secretary of State, is due for a regular visit, and his arrival would be an opportunity to create the united front that was planned last week by the European Union and the US. Vitaly Churkin, the Russian envoy, is also due in London.

This week's Nato initiative was sparked by a personal appeal from Lieutenant-General Sir Michael Rose, the UN military chief in Bosnia, to Boutros Boutros-Ghali, UN Secretary- General, according to sources in Brussels. General Rose bypassed the usual procedures to speak directly to Mr Boutros- Ghali in New York after the fiasco of last weekend, when Nato strikes failed dismally. Mr Boutros-Ghali wrote directly to Nato, and a parallel US initiative ensued.

The result was intended to ease Mr Akashi out of the picture, and remove his control of the approval of air power.

Showdown looms, page 12