NEW YORK / UN holds its fire until the 13th hour: As the ravaged town of Srebrenica comes under heavy shelling, the world's politicians debate its future

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WAITING until you can see the whites of the enemy's eyes may be good tactics for riflemen, but it has never been recommended for diplomats. Yet that is what the 15 members of the United Nations Security Council did on Friday night. Serbian forces were a thousand yards from the centre of Srebrenica before the Council voted to try to stop them.

All day, in a frenzy of phone calls, faxes, telegrams and radio and television reports from the front line, the diplomats had drafted, re-drafted and debated a resolution designed to stop the Serbs at the gates of Srebrenica. After it was finally passed, the current president of the Council, Jamsheed Marker of Pakistan, faced the waiting cameras and announced: 'We have stopped the fall of the town, and what could have been a bloodbath.'

Under the barrage of questions about 'too little too late', and 'shutting the stable door after the horse had bolted', and charges of 'empty and symbolic gestures', Mr Marker was calm. But what the Council had done - and how it had done it - inspired little confidence that the bloodletting had been halted.

The resolution demanded that 'Srebrenica and its surrounding areas be treated as a safe area which should be free from any armed attack or any other hostile act'. To 'observe and monitor' this hastily declared UN protectorate, 100 Canadian troops were being sent immediately, with the agreement of the commander of the Serb forces.

A hundred troops in a town of 60,000? Mr Marker was unabashed. This was first time such an agreement had been obtained from the Serbs, he said, and the Canadians could provide an advance guard for more UN troops. Who would provide them? The British? The French? The Americans? None had yet shown any enthusiasm, and given this lack of will, might the Serbs not launch a fresh offensive and take the town? They might, admitted the ambassador, but a Serb takeover of Srebrenica would almost certainly trigger the package of new economic sanctions against the Serbs, due to come into force at the end of the month.

It was a delay in the voting on this sanctions package that had brought charges of inaction against the Council and forced the frustrated non-aligned members - Venezuela, Pakistan, Morocco, Cape Verde and Djibouti - to propose the 'safe area'. They felt that the reason for the delay - to wait until after the Russian referendum so as not to embarrass Boris Yeltsin with measures against the Serbs, whom Russian nationalists support - was no longer sufficient.

By now the pressure of military developments and public opinion was beginning to weigh even on the US, Britain and France. They could no longer ignore altogether the draft resolution on 'safe areas'. They could, however, delay any vote on it.

At this stage, strange things began to happen. A US mission fax giving the draft of the resolution somehow went astray. And the results of government-level consultations between the US, Britain and France took a very long time to reach their representatives in New York.

Finally, there was the problem of communicating with Bosnia. Reports said first that Srebrenica had fallen and then that the Serbs had halted a thousand yards from the entrance to the town. The US, seizing on the confusion, argued that the Council should not rush into new resolutions without accurate knowledge of the situation on the ground.

For the West, however, time ran out. Just before midnight the resolution was put to the vote, and carried. Summing up afterwards, Mr Marker said: 'It might have been the 13th hour, but we did it.'