Nato fears new flashpoint in Bosnia

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WESTERN and Russian mediators tried yesterday to broker a ceasefire between Bosnian Serb and Muslim forces, but officials from Nato countries expressed concern that a serious conflict was about to erupt in a crucial area of northern Bosnia. The area is the Brcko corridor, a strip of land that connects Serbia and parts of eastern Bosnia held by the Serbs with Serb-held parts of northern Bosnia and the rebel Serbian Krajina region of Croatia.

A senior State Department official said the United States had received reports that the Bosnian Serbs were transferring heavy weapons to Brcko from the eastern enclave of Gorazde and other areas. London has sent a message to the Bosnian Serb leader, Radovan Karadzic, warning him that if his forces create a new flashpoint 'it would be a very risky course'.

The Bosnian Serbs say that Muslim units are provoking their forces in the Brcko corridor. Similar accusations against Muslim units in Gorazde in March preceded the Serbian offensive that resulted in the enclave's virtual collapse.

Inconclusive clashes have occurred around Brcko for several weeks, but a full-scale battle would present Nato and the United Nations with difficult policy choices. The UN has designated Gorazde and five other places 'safe areas' for Muslims in Bosnia, but not Brcko.

Nato threatened the Bosnian Serbs last week with air strikes if they did not remove heavy weapons from a 12-mile zone around Gorazde. But the alliance has not publicly indicated what it would do if such weapons were transferred to a hotspot such as Brcko.

'Moving equipment, unless it's connected with concentrating forces around a safe area, is not addressed by Nato ultimatums,' the State Department official said. 'There's a great deal of concern about movements towards Brcko, and that's something that's actively under review, both in Brussels and at the UN.'

International mediators yesterday opened talks with Bosnian Serb leaders in Pale, near Sarajevo, in the hope of securing a general ceasefire in Bosnia. Alija Izetbegovic, Bosnia's Muslim President, has said he will support a temporary truce of two to three months to allow a period for settling territorial disputes.

Russia advocates relaxing the UN trade and oil embargo on Serbia to encourage Belgrade to coax the Bosnian Serbs into a peace deal. The international mediators want the Serbs to reduce the area of Bosnia under their control from 70 per cent to about 49 per cent, with 51 per cent going to the new Muslim-Croat federation. However, the warring parties have not agreed on which pieces of land should change hands.

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