Lord Owen, the peace envoy, stormed out of Belgrade after the Bosnian Serb leader, Radovan Karadzic, rejected a new peace plan for a demilitarised corridor linking Serbian enclaves in Bosnia. He warned that Mr Karadzic 'is risking driving his people in Bosnia and possibly all Serbs into a devastating conflict with the international community'.
The rejection came amid increasing signs that the United States, Britain and France were likely to agree on air strikes to stop the the Serbian advance in Bosnia. The West has already agreed to enforce tougher sanctions against Serbia. According to Washington sources, President Clinton has decided to use air strikes to protect Muslim towns. The air umbrella will cover Srebrenica, Tuzla and Gorazde, and will be preceded by an ultimatum to Serbia and the Bosnian Serbs. US aircraft overflying Bosnia to enforce the no-fly zone established by the United Nations have already identified and photographed Serbian artillery positions. Yesterday the likelihood of Europe backing such moves rose sharply with the Bosnian Serbs' rejection of the Owen plan.
Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, informed his EC colleagues he had offered support to the 150 Canadian troops who are surrounded by Serbs in Srebrenica. The UN deployed the Canadians to protect the town after a bloody year-long siege ended with a truce and the evacuation of thousands of injured Muslims.
Britain's commitment opens up a much greater range of military options to deter aggression from the Bosnian Serbs, recreating the 'safe haven' approach proposed by Britain and used in northern Iraq. The Ministry of Defence has offered to support the Canadians if they come under heavy attack, with whatever force is neccessary. Though the ceasefire around the town is holding, the situation is 'extremely fragile', a British official said last night. Britain has 'assets' in the area, including carrier- and land-based aircraft as well as ground forces.
The Foreign Secretary told EC foreign ministers of the decision at a meeting in Hindsgavl castle in Denmark where the Twelve underlined that no options - including military measures - had been ruled out. The EC has been deadlocked on the use of force since the war in Bosnia broke out, but yesterday's talks showed they were ready to take the next step.
The move will not require new forces, since there are already aircraft in the region. Though officials were very careful to say that the British initiative was not the same as full-scale intervention to force Serbia to accede to Western demands, they conceded that it was a clear threat, a 'testing of the water' in the words of one official.
The British plan is intended to steer Washington away from the idea of lifting the arms embargo on the Bosnian Muslims. This idea was yesterday rejected by all of the EC apart from Germany. Britain and France in particular believe that it would only create far greater bloodshed. Discussions will now take place between Warren Christopher, the US Secretary of State, and the Europeans, probably in EC capitals this week.
One of the final chances for peace in Bosnia without further Western intervention appears to have ended yesterday with the rejection of the latest Owen plan. 'If we accept this, we are dead - finished,' Mr Karadzic said after meeting Lord Owen, who in turn accused him of leading not only Bosnian Serbs but also the whole Serbian nation 'down a very dangerous and tragic path'. A senior aide to the Bosnian president, Alija Izetbegovic, dismissed Mr Karadzic as 'completely mad' after he turned down a modification of the plan already signed by Mr Izetbegovic and the Bosnian Croats.
The announcement of the US decision on Bosnia has been delayed because Washington fears that measures against Serbia may damage President Yeltsin in the Russian referendum today. But, according to one US source, 'the incremental political costs to Clinton of inaction in Bosnia have risen sharply in the past two weeks'.
The press conference held by Mr Clinton on Friday, the second since he came to office, was dominated by questions about what he intended to do to save the Bosnian Muslims. The change in US policy has come largely because of Serbian rejection of the Vance- Owen plan to divide Bosnia into cantons and the heavily publicised attack on Srebrenica.