Moscow seeking delay on sanctions: UN willing to postpone vote on new embargo against Serbia to help Yeltsin win Russian referendum

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THE United Nations Security Council yesterday delayed its adoption of tightened sanctions against Belgrade until tomorrow. The delay came after the Russians had requested the vote be put off until after the 25 April referendum on Boris Yeltsin and his reforms. The council vote will almost certainly be delayed for two weeks, diplomats said.

President Yeltsin had requested the postponement in a letter to the US President, Bill Clinton. The official Moscow position is that Russian diplomacy over the next 15 days could bring the Serbs to the Bosnian peace table, but Moscow's move was widely interpreted as one that would delay the new Security Council action until after the referendum. Mr Yeltsin has told Mr Clinton that new sanctions would be unpopular in Russia because of the special ties between Russian nationalists and the Serbs, who are Orthodox Christians.

The new sanctions, including tighter controls on shipments of goods to Belgrade, are intended to persuade the Bosnian Serbs to sign the UN-EC peace plan for Bosnia mediated by Lord Owen and Cyrus Vance. Of the three warring factions in Bosnia, the Muslims and the Croats have accepted the peace plan that would divide Bosnia into semi- autonomous cantons, but the Serbs have so far refused to accept the divisions.

In their negotiations Lord Owen and Mr Vance successfully isolated the Serbs, hoping immediate international pressure on Belgrade could be brought to bear through the Security Council and the new sanctions. But the vote had already been postponed once - on the eve of the US-Russian summit in Vancouver - to accommodate Mr Yeltsin and thus to avoid a possible Russian abstention, or even a veto.

Yesterday's postponement reflects President Clinton's priority of doing everything possible to prop up Mr Yeltsin, and also having the Russians fully supportive of the Vance-Owen peace plan. The British and the French had been eager to vote yesterday on the new sanctions to keep the pressure on the Serbs, but were persuaded by the Americans to accept the Russian request for a delay.

In return, the US suggested a compromise. In the original draft resolution the new sanctions were due to take effect 15 days after the vote, giving the Serbs time to react. But yesterday the Americans suggested that the 15-day grace period should be eliminated if the Council accepted the Russian delay and voted after the referendum, say on 26 April.

In a statement, France, Spain, Britain and the US reiterated that the Bosnian Serbs must sign the peace plan and end all military attacks, or the sanctions will be strengthened and the Serbs isolated.

'Unless the Bosnian Serbs sign up and cease military activity by 26 April, then there will be a resolution setting out these sanctions,' a European envoy said.

At the same time, the Russian special envoy to the Vance-Owen negotiations, Vitaly Churkin, has been trying to persuade Belgrade to pressure the Bosnian Serbs to end their siege of the Muslim town of Srebrenica and to adopt a more positive attitude toward the peace talks.

(Photograph omitted)