Bosnian Serb fear of peace deal 'sparked air assault': After three days of US-sponsored talks, Croats and Muslims announce initial agreement on forming Bosnian confederation

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The Independent Online
BOSNIAN SERBS apparently took the risk of a confrontation with Nato and scrambled six warplanes on Monday because they feared that Bosnian Croats and Muslims were on the verge of forming a new military alliance against them.

Two US F-16s shot down four of the Serbian ground-jets, the first instance of Nato using military muscle in its 45-year history and the first case of the West backing United Nations resolutions on Bosnia- Herzegovina with force.

'If the Serbs were willing to risk six planes and confrontation with Nato it had to be for an important reason,' said Milos Vasic, the respected military correspondent for the independent Serbian weekly Vreme.

That reason, according to Vasic and others, were three days of US- sponsored Muslim-Croat talks in Washington. Those talks yesterday resulted in the announcement that both sides had reached a preliminary agreement to stop their bloody territorial struggle in central Bosnia and to create a Croat-Muslim confederation.

The agreement, if it holds, would bury existing peace plans calling for a three-way carve-up of Bosnia into Serbian, Croatian and Muslim mini-states. Those plans, currently on the table in Geneva, are heavily favoured by the Serbs.

'The American initiative in bringing the Bosnian and Croat sides together on talks on possible future confederation is seen by the Serbian side as ominous,' said a briefing paper released yesterday by the Bosnian embassy in London.

Diplomats in London and Belgrade say the Washington talks increased pressure on the Serbs to try either to circumvent agreement or to limit the military effectiveness of a deal between Muslims and Croats, who, until they broke apart last year, were joined in fighting Serbian efforts to divide Bosnia.

At the heart of the Serbs' current fears is the Muslims' revitalised arms and munitions industry in central Bosnia in or near the towns of Bugojno, Vitez and Novi Travnik. Of particular concern is the Bratstvo armaments factory in Novi Travnik, which the Serbian planes attacked on Monday, along with a munitions plant in Bugojno, before the F-16s shot them down.

The Bratstvo complex was an important producer of artillery cannons and rocket-launchers until Serbian jets bombed the plant in 1992. However, the Bosnian Muslims say they have repaired the factory and have already turned out some heavy weapons.

Artillery is the key to the Serbs' strategic advantage over the more numerous Muslim-led government forces. The possibility of the Bosnian government achieving parity in firepower with the Serbs is a big concern to Serbian military leaders. Such a development - especially if the Croats were to ally themselves with the Muslims again - could alter the course of the war.

Some analysts say Monday's attack might also have been an attempt to show Croats that the Serbs were willing to help them crush the Muslims in central Bosnia.

The Serbs continued yesterday to deny any involvement in Monday's incident. General Manojlo Milovanovic, the chief of staff of the Bosnian Serb Army, urged a joint investigation by the Bosnian Serb and UN forces to establish the origin of the Yugoslav-built Galebs.

Meanwhile, an anonymous Yugoslav air force pilot based in Podgorica, Montenegro, said the four warplanes shot down on Monday were piloted by Bosnian Serbs flying for the self-proclaimed 'Serbian Republic of Krajina' in Croatia.

French military officials said yesterday that it was 'very probable' that four of the six planes, versions of Yugoslav Galeb light-attack aircraft, came from an airbase, Ubdina, near Knin in Serb-held Croatia, while the others took off from another Serb base at Banja Luka in north-west Bosnia. The two aircraft which escaped the attack were heading due west and might have landed at Udbina, the officials said.

The Krajina Serbs and Bosnian Serbs from the Banja Luka region have a close working relationship and there have been reports of mutual support on various occasions.

Western military experts estimate that Bosnian Serbs have had 37 planes, including Galebs, stationed at Banja Luka airport. But UN military observers at the Banja Luka airbase were confined by the Serbs to their quarters and were unable to learn whether any planes took off from or landed there.

(Photograph omitted)