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UK and Germany appeal to Yeltsin

John Major and Helmut Kohl telephoned the Russian President, Boris Yeltsin, yesterday to persuade him to "use his influence" with the Serbs as the crisis in Bosnia escalated.

The Prime Minister, speaking after scheduled talks with the German Chancellor in Bonn, said the situation was "immensely serious". He hinted that United Nations forces might pull out of Bosnia if things get worse. "If fighting escalates to a degree where it is impossible for them to do the job properly at an acceptable risk, then they should withdraw." The UN troops were "not equipped to be in the middle of a full-scale war". But his preferred option was still for the troops to remain in place.

Mr Yeltsin told Mr Major and Mr Kohl that "Russia will do everything possible to halt the hostilities in Bosnia if we are fully agreed that there will be no more air strikes" on Bosnia.

Willy Claes, the Nato secretary-general, said the UN and Nato would have to make key decisions about their presence in Bosnia over the next few days. "We are at a turning-point," he said after yesterday's air strikes. The UN was about to table a new paper on the peace-keeping forces in Bosnia, and Nato will have to decide what its role in the conflict is to be. Yesterday Mr Claes again laid down existing demands to the warring parties. "Nato expects all parties to the conflict in former Yugoslavia immediately to halt shelling of "safe areas" and to respect the terms of the exclusion zones by either removing heavy weapons from these zones or placing them under effective control."

The latest strikes have crystallised Nato's dilemmas in Bosnia. It can strike against targets like the ammunition dump but if these lead to further attacks against UN forces, it may become involved in a far more difficult operation: assisting with the withdrawal of the peace-keepers. A pull- out could involve 50,000 Nato personnel, about half of them from the US, depending on the scale of the operation, diplomats said. It would be the largest operation the alliance has carried out.

The withdrawal plan is still being dragged through Nato's political machinery, but if there is an emergency, it could quickly react, sources said. Nato foreign ministers meet next week in the Netherlands and Bosnia will top the agenda if the situation continues to deteriorate. There may be a meeting of the five-nation contact group, as France, Britain, Germany and the US are all Nato members and Andrei Kozyrev, the Russian Foreign Minister, will also be in the Netherlands.

The UN yesterday acknowledged that it had adopted a fundamental and risky shift in strategy by launching air strikes against the Bosnian Serbs. The UN spokesman in Zagreb, Fred Eckhard, said this "admittedly risky strategy" had been chosen because the situation for Unprofor was becoming untenable. But he also admitted that it could lead to a withdrawal of the peace-keepers if the Serbs did not back down.