Nato unclear on plans for attack

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BRUSSELS - It is no longer expected that Nato will decide to start air strikes in Bosnia when ambassadors meet in Brussels on Monday, alliance sources said yesterday. 'Thus far, I have no indication that the US will push for a decision on Monday,' said a source. 'I don't think we're in push mode,' said a US official in Brussels.

Meetings this weekend will throw some light on how such operations would work, if they ever took place. This will then be agreed at political level on Monday. But at the end of a week of remarkable diplomatic activity it seems, if anything, less clear than before whether strikes will ever materialise.

After Nato ambassadors met last Monday night for a marathon 12 hours, it seemed likely that some progress had been made towards the alliance initiating air strikes in Bosnia against the Bosnian Serbs. The aim was to prevent the 'strangulation' of Sarajevo. This came after American pressure, including the threat of unilateral strikes - which was later denied.

But most of the detail was left unresolved, and all the parties involved agreed that the devil was in the detail. In particular, the way in which such strikes would be ordered, and the means of liaising between troops on the ground and Nato, were left hanging. This Monday, a number of points should be cleared up, including the command and control of operations, rules of engagement and targeting and other operational details.

But will this ever amount to anything? It is now clearer that there are at least three levels of resistance that must be breached before strikes can happen.

First, the assent of Nato's North Atlantic Council will be required. That means getting all 16 nations in agreement, which looks unlikely. It will almost certainly require another meeting, perhaps of foreign ministers. Denmark's Foreign Minister, Niels Helveg Petersen, said in an interview that he believed bombing would ruin the peace process. Italy also expressed reservations, and those countries with troops in Bosnia - Britain, France, Spain, Belgium and Canada - have long been known to be wary.

Secondly, the agreement of UN forces on the ground, under the command of Unprofor in Zagreb, is needed. There have been talks between General Jean Cot of Unprofor and US military officials, which have clarified matters. But yesterday, Gen Francis Briquemont, the Belgian in command of UN forces in Bosnia, made clear his opposition.

A decision to go ahead can then only happen after 'consultation' with Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the United Nations Secretary-General. But more than that may be required. The need to get Mr Boutros-Ghali's active co-operation seems to have arisen as a result of pressure from New York during the week. Now, alliance sources say, it is recognised that more than consultation will have to take place. The phrase used is 'co- ordination', which seems to mean that the UN Secretary-General's active assent is required.

The alliance says, however, that it can still play a more active role by making the pace on air strikes, since it can initiate the procedure for making them happen. Before, the UN had the whip hand. It also points out that the military preparations move things much further down the line, closer to Nato's first use of force outside its borders since the alliance was set up in 1947.

Everybody in Brussels agreed on at least one thing yesterday: things are still very unpredictable. The meetings this weekend, the negotiations in Geneva, the fighting on the ground and the temper of the US administration in Washington could still tilt the balance.