Saving Sarajevo: Serbs may face air strikes by allies

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THE United States has secured broad approval from Britain and France for allied air strikes if necessary, to break the Serbian stranglehold on Sarajevo and hasten a 'viable and reasonable' conclusion to the current Geneva negotiations on Bosnia which would preserve at least the rump of a Muslim state.

According to officials here closely involved in the deliberations, intensive consultations are taking place between Washington and its two key allies. Their focus is on what Serbian targets should be hit, and what form of ultimatum should be issued before any action begins.

Although the views of other key countries, notably Russia, remain unclear, both Britain and France are squarely behind this more forceful US stance. Top US policymakers, believed to include the Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, and Anthony Lake, the National Security Council adviser, are due to review the discussions and see 'whether something can be put together', in the words of one Adminstration official. A final decision, another official predicted yesterday, 'could come within days'.

The new initiative would carry Western intervention significantly beyond the existing commitment under last May's United Nations Resolution 836 to use allied airpower to protect UN peace-keepers in Bosnia, who have come under fire during the recent Bosnian Serb shelling of Sarajevo. With 50 to 60 allied planes in the region, and forward controllers or 'spotters' all but in place in Bosnia, that threat could become reality this weekend.

The wider action now being mooted falls far short of the 'lift and strike' policy that the US vainly urged upon its European allies in the spring. It notably contains no suggestion of lifting the arms embargo on Bosnia, to which Britain in particular has objected all along. Nor is there any talk of preserving a unified state on the geographical territory of Bosnia, as contained in the now abandoned Vance-Owen plan.

Instead, Washington and its partners, only too aware that diplomatic pressure has failed to end the fighting, are making a last- ditch effort to influence the outcome of the crisis through the earlier UN Resolution 770 of last August. Its more loosely worded formulation permits 'all neccessary measures' to permit humanitarian relief to reach the beleaguered Bosnians.

'The Serbs and to a less extent the Croats must be deterred,' a Western official stressed. 'There is a common analysis in Washington, London and Paris that there is an opportunity to be seized right now,' he added.