Nato lifts air-strike threat to Serbs

Bosnia turning point: Raids suspended indefinitely after UN verifies withdrawal of heavy weapons from around Sarajevo
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The Independent Online
The rebel Serbs won an indefinite suspension of Nato air strikes yesterday, bowing to international orders to withdraw artillery threatening Sarajevo and accept a cease-fire around the city - a demand that the government, buoyed by huge gains in north-west Bosnia, appears reluctant to agree to.

The two men with the power to end the air raids, General Bernard Janvier, the UN commander in former Yugoslavia, and his Nato counterpart, Admiral Leighton Smith, yesterday concluded on a visit to Sarajevo that the Serbs had done enough to satisfy the international community. "Admiral Smith and General Janvier have recommended that air strikes should indefinitely be suspended," said a draft statement.

The Serbs have withdrawn about 250 heavy weapons from the 20km (12-mile) exclusion zone around Sarajevo, allowed the UN and aid agencies access along two roads into the city and re-opened the airport. There was some defiance. Serbs in Vogosca, near the capital, fired two missiles at Nato jets on Tuesday night but missed.

Now the Serbs are deprived of most of the big guns that have terrorised Sarajevans, and fear a Bosnian attack, they are eager to cease hostilities and cement their position before peace talks. But the government, whose soldiers on Tuesday broke a pledge not to take advantage of Nato raids by firing four mortars out of Sarajevo, said it will only consider a truce around the capital. The UN condemned the mortar attack, and urged the government to agree to a cease-fire.

Croatian forces advancing in north-west Bosnia in co-ordination with Bosnia's mainly Muslim army have halted their offensive and are pulling back some units, the UN said yesterday. "They have given up the attack and are pulling back their equipment across the river,'' said Alexander Invanko, a UN spokesman. "The advance from the south appears to have slowed dramatically as well."

Bosnian troops aided by Croatian artillery have struck into the Serb heartland, gaining land around Sanski Most and Prijedor, whose fall would avenge the torture, murder, rape and expulsions committed by the Serbs in 1992. "The Bosnian army may have surrounded Prijedor and we have reports of Bosnian Serb army units moving out of Prijedor," Mr Ivanko said. But the UN's information is sketchy. Other officials said Serb forces were pushing their enemies back.

Speaking in London after meeting John Major yesterday, President Alija Izetbegovic linked the fate of the city to government-controlled areas still under Serb siege: "I want to say that we've been specially seeking a solution for Banja Luka, opening the road to Gorazde, and finally opening the road to Sarajevo." Mr Major said: "I think it is safe to say the door is swinging open for peace, but it is not fully open yet."

Despite fears that Serbia might act to save Banja Luka, the Yugoslav Foreign Ministry said: "Intervention is not even an option." The same did not hold for Zeljko "Arkan" Raznatovic, the Serbian paramilitary leader. He and his militia reached Sanski Most yesterday, according to the Bosnian Serb news agency.

n New York - The Armed Forces Minister, Nicholas Soames, warned yesterday that Britain will be asked to increase the number of its troops in Bosnia to take part in a peace implementation force if the peace efforts of the US envoy, Richard Holbrooke, are successful, David Usborne writes.

Mr Soames said: "If there was a peace implementation force, following a ceasefire ... it is more than likely that our contribution to the force will be larger than the commitment we have already." Britain has 8,500 personnel in Bosnia. While it is unclear how large a peace force might be, sources in New York said Britain could be asked to send considerable numbers of new soldiers. It is clear also that if peace is achieved, the implementation force would be under Nato, not UN, command.