Attacks on Serbs are now 'off the agenda': West hopeful that artillery withdrawal will breathe new life into peace talks as Moscow once again enjoys status as world player

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The Independent Online
AIR STRIKES are off, talking back on. British officials yesterday heaved a sigh of relief and said air strikes on Serbian positions around Sarajevo would now be averted, provided the withdrawal of Serbian heavy artillery under a Russian proposal continues.

'Air strikes are off the agenda,' a British official told the Independent. 'Unless the Serbs welsh on the deal completely, you can take it as read that they're off the agenda.'

John Major said last night: 'I cannot promise you this evening that we shall not have to use force to implement the Sarajevo ceasefire. But the situation is looking immensely brighter than it did 48 hours ago.' He said no country had done more than Britain to help end the 'dreadful conflict'.

Officials said Mr Major and Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, had been given an indication of the Russian plan to send troops to Sarajevo during their visit to Moscow earlier this week, but had decided not to share the information with their allies. 'Yeltsin said he was considering the possibility of sending Russian troops,' one source said. But Mr Major had chosen not to pass this on to the United Nations, the US, France or other allies and concerned parties 'because it was told to us in confidence and we got the impression it wasn't something they wanted broadcast to the world'.

The West would now 'build on this success by reinvigorating the peace process. That means bringing in the Russians and Americans in earnest.' The Russians were to continue to exercise pressure on the Serbs to honour the deal in Sarajevo and improve the situation elsewhere, such as Tuzla. The Americans were to make clear to the Bosnian Muslims once and for all there was no point in holding out for a full-scale Western intervention.

Britain would respond positively to a call yesterday by Andrei Kozyrev, the Russian Foreign Minister, for 'multilateral talks', bringing in both the Russians and the Americans. A meeting of high-level officials was expected next week.

France - with Britain the biggest contributor of ground troops to Bosnia - made it clear that a withdrawal of Serb artillery was not enough to end the siege of Sarajevo. 'Lifting the siege . . . is not limited to the withdrawal of Serb artillery,' the French Foreign Minister, Alain Juppe, declared. 'It also requires freedom of movement around Sarajevo for humanitarian convoys and for people. If on Monday we find that the ultimatum has been implemented, diplomatic action will have to go into top gear all next week.' Among the next steps would be putting the entire district of Sarajevo under UN administration, Mr Juppe added.

As he spoke, President Boris Yeltsin sent a message to President Francois Mitterrand warning against Nato air strikes. The message 'warns against the consequences of an air strike which (Mr Yeltsin) believes would be terrible', said a French official. Mr Yeltsin 'reaffirmed he would put pressure on the Serbs' to lift their siege.

British officials said Mr Juppe was right to point out that the West 'must not lose sight of the fact that Sarajevo is not the whole of Bosnia, and that the Serbian withdrawal of heavy weapons is not a lifting of the siege in its fullest sense.'

But Mr Juppe was not thought to be indicating that air strikes were still a possibility. The matter would be discussed when Mr Hurd visits Paris on Monday for talks with Mr Juppe and the French Prime Minister, Edouard Balladur.

Yesterday Mr Hurd said that if the withdrawal continued 'then there needn't be air strikes, Sarajevo would be relieved and we can go on to getting a settled peace in Bosnia as a whole'. Mr Major declared: 'The purpose of threatening air strikes was to stop the bombardment of Sarajevo and bring the heavy weapons under control. If that can be done by negotiation . . . that is clearly very good news.'

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