Serbs exploit Kremlin threat to pull troops out of Bosnia

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MOSCOW put out contradictory signals about Bosnia yesterday, leaving the West wondering whether it could count on Russia to support its efforts to end the war there.

Russia voted along with other United Nations Security Council members to order the Bosnian Serbs to stop shelling Gorazde, and Andrei Kozyrev, Russia's Foreign Minister, described their attacks on the Muslim enclave as 'barbaric and criminal'. But the conclusion he drew was that the world should form a common stand on former Yugoslavia. A more junior official in the Foreign Ministry even suggested that Russia might withdraw its peace- keeping forces from Bosnia if Nato extends air strikes.

Earlier this week, it seemed Russia might stop shielding its traditional Serb allies and join a world effort to halt the aggression of the Bosnian Serb army. Vitaly Churkin, the Kremlin's special envoy, returned to Moscow furious he was not able to exert influence on the Serbs. President Boris Yeltsin told the Serbs to pull back from Gorazde.

But then Pavel Grachev, the Defence Minister, muddied the waters, saying he did not agree with Mr Churkin, and accusing the Bosnian Muslims of provoking the Serbs. Officials denied a split and said President Yeltsin spoke for all Russia. The Kremlin leader now says that US, European and Russian leaders should meet for a summit on Bosnia. Mr Kozyrev's rhetoric was strong yesterday as he told Niels Helveg Petersen, the Danish Foreign Minister, that Serb behaviour at Gorazde went 'quite beyond the bounds of civilisation'.

But he said Nato air strikes would only make matters worse. Grigory Karasin, the Foreign Ministry spokesman, suggested the Russian contingent in the UN peace-keeping force might go home if Nato air strikes put them at risk. 'If violence escalates in Bosnia-Herzegovina . . . the further stay of peace-keeping forces in Bosnia could come under question,' he said.

If the Kremlin is confused about Bosnia, ordinary Russians are at a greater loss. Many care about Gorazde, though their media has fed them a generally pro- Serb line. 'The problem is our historical experience,' one Muscovite said. 'All through our history, we Russian Orthodox have been defending ourselves against Muslims. So when we see fellow Orthodox Christians fighting Muslims, it is hard for us to believe that the Muslims have not somehow deserved it.'