Kozyrev tours Central Europe: Russia's foreign minister lobbies for Moscow and seeks to reassure former allies

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AS THE midnight deadline for possible Nato air raids on Bosnian Serbs around Sarajevo approached, Andrei Kozyrev, the Russian Foreign Minister, was already looking much further ahead.

Speaking in Prague, Mr Kozyrev said that as far as Moscow was concerned the deadline had long since been disregarded. Now the time had come to look for a long-term solution for Bosnia, he added. 'We will not entertain tragic scenarios (for Bosnia),' Mr Kozyrev said. 'We would rather concentrate on the most all sides can contribute to (the solution).'

Mr Kozyrev was clearly still basking in the success of the Russian-brokered deal under which the Bosnian Serbs agreed to give up their heavy weaponry around Sarajevo in return for not being bombed.

The international community should now focus on more 'positive' means of resolving the crisis, he said, adding that efforts should be 'pooled' towards encouraging 'all the parties - both Serb and Muslim - to withdraw their forces, and either to withdraw or to hand their heavy artillery over to UN control . . . along the lines of the Russian initiative'.

In part, Mr Kozyrev's weekend visit to the Czech Republic, which marked the start of a more extensive tour of Central Europe, was aimed at winning more support for Moscow's increased involvement in the Balkans.

But Mr Kozyrev was also anxious to assure his hosts that despite the utterances of the ultra-nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, Russia was not harbouring territorial designs either on the Balkans or any of its former satellite states in Eastern Europe.

If some Russians described the Czech Republic as being part of Moscow's 'sphere of interest', they could only be referring to cultural interests, Mr Kozyrev explained. 'But if the Czechs really feel touchy about the phrase 'sphere of interest', we would be happy not to use it,' he added.

According to one Czech journalist covering the Russian Foreign Minister's visit, his words had a soothing effect - though they were hardly likely to dampen Prague's burning desire to join Nato and other Western institutions, such as the European Union.

Today Mr Kozyrev is due to fly on to Budapest before concluding his visit later in the week in Warsaw. Although he originally planned to include Bratislava in his tour, it was dropped as a result of the current political crisis in Slovakia.