UN takes action to head off air strikes: Deal for Serb withdrawal from the Sarajevo mountains angers Muslims hoping for military intervention from the West

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The Independent Online
UNITED NATIONS officials drafted a Bosnian Serb proposal yesterday to withdraw from two mountains near Sarajevo, in what looks like part of a continuing campaign by the UN in Sarajevo to prevent air strikes.

'I do not dispute it,' said Viktor Andreyev, the UN civil affairs chief for Bosnia, when asked if UN officials had drafted an offer by the Bosnian Serb leader, Radovan Karadzic, to pull back Serbian forces from Mount Igman and Mount Bjelasnica, west of Sarajevo.

However, as the chance remark at a crowded press conference threatened to cause a row over the UN's impartiality in Bosnia, Mr Andreyev denied that the UN had drafted the document.

The two mountains were overrun last week by Serbian forces commanded by the Bosnian Serb warlord Ratko Mladic, triggering a fresh round of American threats to bomb the Serbs into ending the siege of the city.

In spite of the mounting danger of air strikes against the Serbs' estimated 1,400 pieces of heavy artillery around Sarajevo, Serbian forces tightened their grip on the two mountains over the weekend.

'The Serbs have consolidated up there - there are no movements to withdraw,' said Commander Barry Frewer, the UN spokesman in Sarajevo. 'The situation is pretty static, with sporadic shelling.' Most of the defeated Bosnian Muslims have fled Mount Igman to the suburb of Hrasnica at the foot of the slope.

Reports that the UN had drawn up Mr Karadzic's verbal promise to withdraw from Mount Igman, which he delivered on Thursday at the Bosnian Serb headquarters at Pale near Sarajevo, have been widely leaked from UN headquarters in the Bosnian capital.

The Bosnian Muslims complain that the UN is pulling out all the stops to prevent air strikes which, the Muslims hope, would end the Serbs' 16- month siege of Sarajevo, which is slowly but surely strangling the city. To add to the furore, the UN appears to have drafted a deal freezing the Bosnian Muslims out of valuable territory that they held until the 30 July offensive against Sarajevo.

Under the terms of the proposed agreement, Serbian forces would retreat more or less to their previous ceasefire lines. But the Muslim-led Bosnian army would not be allowed back on to Igman or Bjelasnica. Instead the UN would assume exclusive control of the two peaks.

Sarajevo's Muslim defenders stand to lose the last piece of high ground that they hold around the city. But more serious for Sarajevo's long-term survival, the last supply routes for arms and food running in and out of the besieged city would be cut off.

Talks at Sarajevo airport on Friday between the Serbs and the UN force commander in Bosnia, General Francis Briquemont, ended without an agreement. A new round is planned for today.

UN chiefs in Sarajevo have made it clear that they are bitterly opposed to air strikes against the Serbs. They claim that such action would endanger the security of 3,000, mainly French, peace-keepers based in Sarajevo, and ruin the chances of a politically negotiated settlement to the war.

Earlier this week General Briquemont announced 'Operation Lifeline', a plan to open several main roads in Bosnia for humanitarian aid convoys. The UN claimed that it had been working on the plan for some months, but its announcement during the run- up to possible air strikes looked strongly like another move to head off armed intervention against the Serbs.

Most people in Sarajevo are angry about British and French opposition to air strikes. They say they are being made hostages to the well-being of peace-keepers who contribute little to their security.

The Bosnian Serb General, Ratko Mladic, has been warned 'in a very clear and forceful manner' to stop using his Gazelle helicopter in defiance of the UN's no-fly ban or face the consequences, Mr Andreyev said yesterday. General Briquemont had personally warned General Mladic that his helicopter sorties over Igman and Bjelasnica were unacceptable, Mr Andreyev said, but he refused repeatedly to spell out whether the general had told the Bosnian Serb commander that his aircraft could be shot down by 'deny flight' Nato planes. 'All the consequences were explained to him,' he said.

(Photograph omitted)

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