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US rejects Russian accusation of genocide

The US moved urgently yesterday to prevent its "twin track" military and diplomatic Bosnia strategy from going off the rails, as Russia accused Nato of committing "genocide" against the Bosnian Serbs.

Washington is also meeting Italian resistance to the dispatch of F-117 Stealth aircraft to northern Italy for use against Bosnian Serb targets. The US chief negotiator, Richard Holbrooke, will make a new round of shuttle diplomacy between Geneva and the Balkans, to build on last week's preliminary agreement for an effective partition of Bosnia - even as Nato bombs rain on Bosnian Serb installations.

At the same time, Strobe Talbott, deputy Secretary of State and a close friend of President Bill Clinton, was due to leave for Moscow to mollify a Russian government bitterly critical of the continuing air strikes, and demanding a ceasefire.

Perhaps sensing that current Western strategy could be approaching an impasse, Britain is urging the US to consider the enforcement of a local ceasefire around Sarajevo and the extension of guarantees of protection for its Serb population. The Bosnian Serb commander, General Ratko Mladic has said that he fears for the safety of the 120,000 Serbs in the area if Serb tanks and guns are withdrawn.

In Moscow, a government statement carried by Itar-Tass news agency said children were dying every day as a result of Nato action. "In this way, the survival of the present generation of Bosnian Serbs, which is threatened by genocide, is called into question," it said.

The United States denied the charge. A Defence Department spokesman, Ken Bacon, said the campaign was designed to avoid civilian casualties, and described Moscow's accusation as "not a fair statement of what is going on here."

"We have worked very hard to try and keep the military pressure exerted by Nato limited in a way that is best designed to protect people, not to hurt population groups," Mr Bacon said. "I don't think it's fair to confuse that with a very sort of Third World word [genocide] that does not at all describe what we are doing."

The UN claimed a measure of victory in its battle to end Bosnian Serb shelling of Sarajevo yesterday, despite General Mladic's refusals to remove heavy weapons. Explosions shuddered around the city, signifying the heaviest pounding in the Sarajevo area since air strikes began almost two weeks ago. UN officials in Bosnia yesterday pointed out that as the alliance is operating under orders to limit casualties, the bombing raids cannot inflict too much pain. "Nato is going in with one hand tied," one source said. Most Bosnian Serb gun positions, the official said, would be stocked with ammunition for 21 days - and few have been firing in the past two weeks, since the bombing began. Since supply lines are short to Serbia, it would take General Mladic perhaps two weeks to refresh his stocks.

The Serbian President, Slobodan Milosevic broke his silence on Nato air strikes yesterday by telling Europe's Bosnia envoy Carl Bildt that the bombings were fostering war and not peace. Meanwhile the foreign minister of the self-styled Republika Srpska, Aleksa Buha, appealed to Russia and China for "urgent diplomatic and political help".

In Washington, officials were confident they would overcome Italy's reluctance, which has kept kept the half-dozen radar-avoiding F-117s in hangars in New Mexico. They predicted the F-117s could be at the Aviano base by the end of the week. At the United Nations Security Council yesterday, an overwhelming majority of member states led by the United States and Britain flatly rejected attempts by the Russian Ambassador, Sergei Lavrov, to push through a resolution calling for an immediate suspension of the Nato bombing campaign. In a parallel dispute, Mr Lavrov demanded to see a secret memorandum allegedly sent by the UN commander in the former Yugoslavia, General Bernard Janvier, to the Nato commander in Southern Europe, Admiral Leighton Smith, that purportedly outlined conditions under which bombing of Serb targets would be justified.