Russia warns of all-out war if air strikes go ahead

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The Independent Online
VITALY CHURKIN, the Russian diplomat who persuaded the Bosnian Serbs to agree to withdraw their artillery from around Sarajevo, told Nato yesterday to drop the idea of air strikes or risk 'all-out war'. The White House cautiously welcomed the Serbs' pledge but said punitive bombing raids would still be carried out if all the weapons were not pulled back.

'In some political statements, I see a desire to refer to the Nato ultimatum and the repetition of certain threats made some time ago,' said Mr Churkin as he arrived back in Moscow from his latest trip to Bosnia. 'Let me speak very frankly - I know there are some people in Nato who are advocating the strategy 'strike and then negotiate'. In Bosnia-Herzegovina, there can be no such thing as strike and negotiate. You can have either negotiations or an all-out war.'

Russians were pleased that Mr Churkin's efforts had reduced the risk of Nato air strikes. 'If it's peace, that's got to be good,' said Alexei Chernyshov, a member of a parliament whose factions have achieved rare unity in their opposition to the use of Nato air power. 'Bombs are not selective. They kill the guilty and the innocent alike. We can never accept bombing.'

Behind the optimism that bloodshed may be averted, however, is an equally strong satisfaction that the West, which generally welcomed Moscow's initiative, is having to take Russia seriously as a major player on the international stage. The Foreign Minister, Andrei Kozyrev, who was in Greece yesterday, made clear Russia's pride had been hurt when Nato issued its ultimatum to the Bosnian Serbs without referring the matter to the UN Security Council. 'We were not fully informed about the essence of the Nato decision,' he told Itar- Tass news agency. 'But we will not allow anybody to push us from the path of strategic partnership which was agreed during the recent Moscow summit of the US and Russian presidents. Russia will not be discouraged from its efforts to push through its initiatives on Bosnia.'

Moscow was yesterday deciding how many troops it would contribute to a UN monitoring force around Sarajevo. Mr Kozyrev, who had talks with three West European foreign ministers in Athens, said Russian soldiers would also go to other parts of Bosnia and have a long-term peace-keeping role there. It was now up to the West to put pressure on Bosnia's Muslims and Croats to give up their weapons as well, he said.

The Serbs around Sarajevo were persuaded to start pulling back their artillery after President Yeltsin sent a letter to their leader, Radovan Karadzic, as well as their sponsor in Serbia proper, President Slobodan Milosevic. Russia claimed credit for the agreement but Britain may also have played its part as John Major, during his visit to Moscow this week, urged Mr Yeltsin to use his influence with the Serbs to avert further violence.

Britain and Germany were among Western nations to welcome the Russian-brokered deal. But independent defence experts warned that the Serbs might simply transfer their guns from Sarajevo to other parts of Bosnia. And Sarajevo residents said they feared Russians, who are ethnically related to the Serbs and share the same Orthodox religion, could not be impartial.

In the Russian parliament, some MPs sought to reassure the West on that score. 'Our soldiers will make sure the Serbs do not cheat,' said Azred Akbayev, a deputy from a Muslim region of the northern Caucasus. 'The West must learn to trust Russia more. The voice of Russia is the voice of reason. We are committed to democracy now.'

But comments from the extreme Russian nationalist Alexander Nevzorov hardly inspired confidence. The more Russian soldiers in Bosnia, the better, he said. Would they be impartial? 'How can they be objective when an attempt is being made to wipe out our Serb brothers?' he answered. And what if the Serbs just moved their guns from Sarajevo to other parts of Bosnia? 'They would be right to do so. Onward to total victory.' By which Mr Nevzorov said he meant the creation of a Greater Serbia and the 'punishment of those who broke up Yugoslavia'.