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Owen gives Serbs an ultimatum

THE PEACE envoy Lord Owen revealed yesterday that he had threatened Bosnian Serb leaders with military retaliation to force Serbs to agree to hand over their war planes to Yugoslavia, where they will be under United Nations supervision.

In an interview with the BBC, Lord Owen said he told the Bosnian Serb leader, Radovan Karadzic, that any planes which took off from their stronghold of Banja Luka, in north-west Bosnia, in defiance of a UN ban on military flights, could be brought down.

Lord Owen warned the Serbs against breaching the agreement, as has often happened in the past. He declared: 'A lot of people will be very angry if it's not carried out to the letter.' He also made it clear that bombing the airfield at Banja Luka was a possibility, if the planes were not removed. 'I told Karadzic I had no doubt, that they (the planes) would be taken out.'

Following Lord Owen's threat, Bosnian Serb leaders in Geneva agreed to surrender their entire air fleet, believed to number about 24 fighter jets. Lord Owen's ultimatum to the Serbs to surrender their planes followed repeated violations of the UN ban, which was adopted last week.

Serbian planes bombarded at least two towns in northern Bosnia, Gradacac and Brcko, at the weekend, as part of a concerted offensive to wipe out the last pockets of Bosnian resistance in the north of the republic.

The US State Department confirmed that Serbian planes took off from Banja Luka. Bosnian Radio claimed that at least 19 civilians were killed in the weekend bombing of Gradacac.

Aleksa Buha, the 'foreign minister' of the Bosnian Serbs, admitted that his side caved in to pressure to surrender the planes, after the United States and other UN members announced they were seeking a new UN resolution, authorising military force against anyone violating Bosnian airspace. Of the three ethnic factions in Bosnia, only the Serbs are believed to possess military aircraft.

Lord Owen and his fellow UN- EC peace envoy, Cyrus Vance, said they expected UN inspectors to visit Banja Luka today to monitor the withdrawal of the planes to Yugoslavia, which consists only of Serbia and Montenegro.

A big question is whether Bosnian Serb military commanders in Banja Luka will obey the order from Geneva, which strips them of a valued weapon. General Zivomir Ninkovic, the Bosnian Serb air force commander, on Monday said his forces would not adhere to a UN ban on flights, unless Bosnian forces ceased all attacks. He said that Bosnian Serbs had the right to fight with all the military means at their disposal.

Taking away the Serbian war planes may not drastically affect the outcome of the Bosnian war. Serbian forces have grabbed 70 per cent of Bosnian territory thanks to an overwhelming superiority on land in terms of tanks and heavy artillery. The Yugoslav army left behind the bulk of its weaponry to the Serbs in Bosnia before it pulled out of the republic earlier this year. Air strikes have been of secondary importance in the Serbian campaign.