Britain ready to end ban on arms for Bosnia

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The Independent Online
BRITAIN is prepared to accept the lifting of the United Nations arms embargo against Bosnia's Muslim-led government because the Bosnian Serbs have effectively rejected a five-power peace plan for the republic, British officials said yesterday. They said foreign ministers from the United States, France, Germany, Russia and Britain - the five countries of the 'contact group' - would meet in Geneva tomorrow and might set in motion a series of penalties starting with tightened sanctions against the Serbs and culminating in an end to the arms ban.

Bosnia's Muslims have long argued that, if Nato is not willing to take direct military action against the Serbs, then Western countries should allow them the means to recover territories lost since the war broke out in April 1992. The Clinton administration is sympathetic to this view, and pressure has been steadily mounting in the Senate and House of Representatives to lift the arms embargo.

The British officials said that, if it came to a vote in the UN Security Council, Britain, France and Russia would abstain, thereby allowing a majority composed of the US and other countries to secure an end to the arms ban. Britain, France and other Western states with UN peace-keeping forces in Bosnia accepted that this would mean withdrawing their soldiers.

Although the arms embargo is not expected to be lifted instantly, the Bosnian Serb assembly brought the step much closer yesterday by suggesting that the international peace plan was all but unacceptable. Deputies insisted that the self-styled Bosnian Serb state should have the right to unite with Serbia and Serb-controlled parts of Croatia.

The peace plan, while allocating 49 per cent of Bosnia to the Serbs and 51 per cent to a Muslim-Croat federation, does not envisage allowing the Serbian area to merge with Serbia proper. But ever since the Serb-Croat war erupted in June 1991, it has been a Serbian goal to create a state comprising Serbia, Montenegro and Serb-occupied parts of Croatia and Bosnia.

Some Western politicians have expressed grave doubts about lifting the arms embargo, predicting it will intensify the Bosnian war, provoke fresh fighting in Croatia and destabilise the Serbian province of Kosovo and the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia.

Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, has said ending the arms embargo would merely create 'a level killing field'.

The defiant Bosnian Serb stance amounted to a rejection of Russian mediating efforts and called the West's bluff over whether it will take military action against the Serbs. Bosnian Serb deputies said they were ready to negotiate on the international plan for Bosnia, but added that they wanted adjustments to the map, including access to the Adriatic Sea, and clarification of the status of Sarajevo.

The Bosnian Serb tactics set the stage for a tense meeting tomorrow in Geneva, where foreign ministers of the contact group will plot their next move on Bosnia. The five countries hope to end the war by preserving a common position, but their unity has been subjected to severe strains in the past.

The group has warned that rejection of the peace proposal would trigger increased economic and military pressure. However, now the Muslims and Croats have accepted the plan and the Serbs have demanded changes, the Western powers and Russia face the unpleasant fact that their hand is being called. British officials yesterday said the foreign ministers might call in Geneva for an extension of military 'exclusion zones' in Bosnia.

The West and Russia face mounting difficulties over UN peace-keeping operations in Bosnia and Croatia. UN officials said that ceasefire violations in Sarajevo and shelling across the rest of Bosnia reached their worst levels in weeks on Wednesday, the day that Serbian forces killed a British UN soldier outside the capital.

The Bosnian Serbs opened fire on a British resupply convoy, igniting a fuel tanker, wounding two soldiers and a civilian. Corporal Phillip Bottomley, 26, from Cleveland, who was shot in the chest, later died of his wounds. He was part of a 200-strong Royal Logistics Corps unit, and he had a five- year-old daughter.

Bosnian Serbs have introduced an effective blockade of the only commercial road into Sarajevo, and the city's airport remained closed because of an attack on an aircraft as it took off last week.

Meanwhile, the UN Secretary- General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, said it was time the Security Council took action against Croatia for helping Croatian refugees paralyse UN peace-keeping operations in Serb-held Krajina.