US sets Bosnia arms embargo deadline

PRESIDENT Bill Clinton has promised to ask the United Nations to lift the arms embargo on the Bosnian Muslims by the end of October if the Bosnian Serbs continue opposing the peace plan devised by the US, Russia and the European Union.

In a letter to Sam Nunn, the chairman of the Senate Arms Services Committee, made public yesterday, the President says he will give the Serbs until 15 October to accept the plan. If their position is unchanged then, he writes, 'it would be my intention within two weeks to introduce formally and and support a resolution at the UN Security Council to terminate the arms embargo'.

Washington has long favoured exempting the Muslims from the embargo in the belief that it has given the Serbs an unfair edge. Until now, however, the administration has refrained from pushing the issue too hard out of deference to Britain and France, who have troops on the ground. The Foreign Office said yesterday that Britain would abstain in any UN vote on lifting the embargo.

In recent weeks pressure has been mounting on Capitol Hill for a more aggressive stance. Members of Congress have been especially frustrated by the Serbian refusal to accept a plan dividing Bosnia between the warring parties. Most believe that votes in both houses would produce majorities for a suspension of the embargo. Other members of the administration, including the ambassador to the UN, Madeleine Albright, have suggested that if the US fails to get agreement for a multilateral suspension of the embargo, it would consider acting alone.

The lifting of the embargo may not be quite the gift to the Sarajevo government that Mr Clinton intends. Far from giving them the means to achieve total victory, it is more likely, at least in the short term, to bring disaster to thousands living on the Bosnian side of the line. General Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb commander, would interpret it as a hostile act, which would make the position of the peace-keepers in Sarajevo untenable.

The immediate response of General Mladic to a withdrawal of the UN Protection Force and the arming of his enemies would be to strike fast and hard. The Bosnian Serbs would deploy their heavy weapons around Sarajevo and shelling would resume. Thousands more people living in the Muslim enclaves of Srebrenica, Zepa and Gorazde in eastern Bosnia would be almost defenceless, and even regular troops along the 2,000km front line would be hard pressed to do more than crouch in their trenches.

The notion that the Nato air shield, which has kept Sarajevo and Gorazde more or less free from Serbian shells, could be maintained without UN troops on the ground is dismissed by officials in Bosnia. 'You cannot hold ground with air power,' said one senior UN officer.

In Sarajevo yesterday an 11-year- old girl was killed, reportedly by a weapon that has been banned inside the UN exclusion zone.

Lieutenant-General Sir Michael Rose, the UN commander in Bosnia, is to hold talks with both warring factions in an attempt to keep the peace process on track.

Two planes that had delivered aid to Sarajevo yesterday were found to have bullet holes when they landed at Split and at Ancona, after the flight from Bosnia. Sarajevo airport, which is positioned in an awkward location at a frontline crossroads, was put on a higher state of alert and was closed to all air traffic. French peace- keepers on patrol there reported an increase in sniping in the area.

The UN fears that fighting around the towns of Ilijas and Visoko, north of Sarajevo, where the frontline bisects the 20km (12- mile) heavy-weapons exclusion zone around Sarajevo, could provoke a descent into total war.

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