UN tightens screw on Bosnia Serbs

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The Independent Online
THE United Nations Security Council has given the Belgrade government the next seven days to persuade the Bosnian Serbs to sign the UN- and EC-sponsored peace plan, or face harsh new economic sanctions and international isolation as great as that imposed on Iraq after the Gulf war. There was no indication yesterday that the Serbs would come to the peace table.

Prompted by the Serbian advance to the gates of the Muslim town of Srebrenica, the Council held two frenzied emergency midnight sessions at the weekend, first demanding a 'safe area' around Srebrenica and then reversing an earlier decision to put off a vote on tougher sanctions until 26 April, a day after the Russian referendum on Boris Yeltsin's reforms. The sanctions were agreed but will still not come into force until 26 April.

It was a small but significant turn of the sanctions screw on the Serbs and a move in which the Security Council, which has been much criticised in recent days for inaction while Bosnian Muslims were being slaughtered, called a Russian-American bluff and found it wanting.

The 15-member Council had originally agreed to put off the new sanctions vote in response to a request from President Yeltsin. He told President Bill Clinton at their Vancouver summit that it would not be possible for Russia to vote for tightened sanctions against the Serbs before the Russian referendum on Sunday without harming the future of his reforms. The reason, said Mr Yeltsin, was that Russian conservatives, who support the Serbs because of ethnic and religious affinities, have accused Mr Yeltsin of abandoning their Serb 'brothers' and he would risk losing support. The implication was that if the Security Council tried to bring the sanctions vote, the Russians might veto it.

The Americans, acceding to the Russian request, to help to keep Mr Yeltsin in power, persuaded the British and the French to go along with the delay, although both London and Paris felt sanctions should have been voted on immediately if the Serbs were to be persuaded to sign the peace plan already approved by both the Muslims and the Croats.

Many diplomats here believe it was the delay in the vote that allowed the Serbs to feel free to launch a new drive to take the few remaining Muslim- held towns in eastern Bosnia. In any event, as the Serbs closed in on Srebrenica, the five non-aligned members of the Council staged a revolt and demanded the first emergency session of the Council. They pushed for, and obtained, a resolution demanding the 'safe area' around the Muslim town, free passage for the wounded and permission from the Serbs to allow 150 Canadians into the town to monitor a ceasefire.

When the ceasefire broke down and the Canadians were not allowed into Srebrenica, the French broke with the US and Britain and demanded an immediate vote on the new sanctions resolution. The second emergency session was called on Saturday night, with Council members wondering if Russia would veto the resolution.

The Russian ambassador, Yuli Vorontsov, left the Council chamber for two hours to consult Moscow, but apparently could not find Mr Yeltsin. It was the eve of the Orthodox Easter. Without new instructions, Mr Vorontsov asked for a postponement until today while protesting that he did not see the reason for the hurry. 'What is the reason for the haste?' he asked. 'A hasty decision could be harmful to the peace process,' he said, referring to Russian diplomatic efforts to bring the Serbs to the peace table and new UN and Muslim efforts on the ground in Bosnia to bring about a new ceasefire. Those efforts included helicopter evacuation of the wounded from Srebrenica, the opening of land corridors for relief supplies and the deployment of the Canadian observers.

But the French, backed now by Britain and as before by the five non- aligned members - Venezuela, Pakistan, Morocco, Cape Verde and Djibouti - continued to press for a vote on the tougher sanctions. A compromise was offered to the Russians. It said the sanctions resolution would include a delay of nine days, until after the Russian referendum - in effect the same grace period offered originally.

Finally, Mr Vorontsov received his orders from Moscow: abstain. And the vote went ahead just before midnight on Saturday.

If the threat of increased isolation does not persuade the Serbs to sign the peace plan prepared by Cyrus Vance and Lord Owen, and if, despite assurances to the contrary, the Serbian advance continues, as the Muslims fear, then the peace plan will be declared dead by the Muslims and there will be increasing calls for military action, including air strikes against Serbian positions. Already, Lady Thatcher and Lord Owen have called for such action.

The US could be confronted with carrying out unilateral air strikes because Britain and France would not act without a UN mandate and any action by the Security Council could be vetoed by Russia.

(Photograph omitted)