RAF squadron set to patrol Bosnian skies: British, French and US warplanes are preparing to enforce the air exclusion zone

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THE RAF is expected to provide a squadron of Tornado F3 fighters to patrol the skies over Bosnia following the United Nations decision to enforce the no-fly zone over the republic. The Tornados will operate as part of a Nato air wing of 50 to 100 planes.

The UN decision brought a furious reaction from Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb leader, who said it was 'a catastrophic error' that would harden Serbian opposition to an international peace plan and could lead to an escalation of the conflict.

UN Security Council members were meeting informally yesterday to discuss a draft resolution that would set out further sanctions against the Serbs if they do not sign up to the Vance-Owen peace plan. Lord Owen is leaving for Geneva this weekend where the next round of peace talks will take place. It is expected that he will be joined by the Norwegian Foreign Minister, Thorvald Stoltenberg, who is replacing Cyrus Vance as co- chairman of the peace talks.

General Colin Powell, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the air operation would begin 'within two weeks but not before one week'. It is well understood that if Nato planes attack Bosnian Serb or Yugoslav air force planes violating the no- fly zone, UN forces escorting humanitarian aid on the ground will be vulnerable to reprisals and may have to be withdrawn. The operation will have to be escalated from 'humanitarian aid' to 'peace enforcement' and serious casualties could result.

The force will include British, US and French fighters, tankers and Airborne Warning and Control Aircraft (Awacs) - the latter already flying over the Adriatic and Hungary. The Dutch have offered a squadron of F-16 fighters and the US is expected to deploy F-14 Tomcats and F/A-18 Hornets from the carrier Theodore Roosevelt, now in the Mediterranean. The operation will be controlled from Vicenza by Lieutenant-General Giuseppe degli Innocenti, an Italian who commands Nato's 5th Allied Tactical Air Force.

The UN imposed the no-fly zone over Bosnia in October to stop aircraft attacks. The ban has been violated some 500 times since then, mostly by the Serbs but also by the Croats.

Serbia has most of the former Yugoslav air force's aircraft, including 18 Soviet MiG-29s. Belgrade also has older MiG-21 fighters and outdated Yugoslav Super Galebs. The Bosnian Serbs are thought to have more than 20 fixed-wing aircraft and some 20 helicopters. The former include terrain-hugging, propeller-driven aircraft, some of them biplanes, which could be difficult for fast modern jets to shoot down. Three single-engine propeller-driven planes, one of them reportedly a biplane, dropped bombs on villages near Srebrenica last month.

The RAF's available planes - Tornado F3s and Harriers - 'have a capability against slow-moving targets. But it is not an easy target - their ability to use terrain is quite significant,' said an RAF officer. Piston-engined aircraft generate a fraction of the heat of jet planes and modern air-to-air missiles may not pick up the emissions or blast through light wing and body structures if they do. 'The missiles would be confused. All that a Tornado could do is stand back and blast away from some distance with the 27mm Mauser cannon,' said an RAF source. 'You'd have to do it in a very old-fashioned way.'

At the World Court in The Hague yesterday, Bosnia accused Serbia of the first European genocide since Hitler and warned that the Balkan conflict could ignite the Third World War. 'Not since the Holocaust of half a century before have we witnessed a crime, and aggression that has targeted so directly a civilian population,' said Muhamed Sacirbey, the Bosnian ambassador to the UN. 'In particular, Bosnian Muslims and their culture are by far the overwhelming victims,' he told the court.

Mr Sacirbey cited official and press accounts of murder, summary executions, gang rape of women and children, forced relocation and bombardment of civilian areas by troops or allies of the rump Yugoslavia.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees was urgently reviewing yesterday its evacuation operation in Srebrenica after seven people died on Wednesday during a stampede to board a convoy.

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