Wary UN rules out air raids on Serbs

The United Nations protested strongly about the Bosnian Serb shelling of a Sarajevo suburb that killed 10 people on Sunday, but officials said it was unlikely to call for retaliatory Nato air strikes for fear of inflaming the situation in Bosnia and Croatia.

Colum Murphy, a UN spokesman in Sarajevo, denounced the "completely unprovoked" mortar attack as "the most outrageous violation" of the UN "safe area" and the Nato heavy-weapons exclusion zone around the city. Officials confirmed 10 dead and at least 11 wounded in the attack by 120mm mortars fired from the Serb side, but suspect the total number of wounded is higher, a spokesman said.

Although UN peace-keepers in theory can request Nato to bomb offending Serb positions, the option was ruled out yesterday, a UN official said. "There were too many complicating matters, specifically the situation in Croatia, because if we use the military option we escalate the situation to a point that could be regarded as a breaking one - particularly in regard to UN troops in Serb-held Croatia," he said. "Two months ago we probably would have gone for an air strike."

Madeleine Albright, the US representative to the United Nations, criticised the peace-keeping mission for rejecting what she said was a request from Lieutenant-General Rupert Smith, the British UN commander in Bosnia, to use allied air power.

"I fail to understand the logic behind turning down such a request, given the kinds of activities that have taken place in and around Sarajevo in the last 24 to 28 hours," she said in New York. "This issue is not closed."

Yesterday three shells hit the northern town of Tuzla, another "safe area", reportedly killing four people. There were 2,100 firing incidents in Sarajevo in the 24 hours to 8am yesterday, including shells that hit the centre after midnight on Sunday and the suburb of Butmir at dawn. No further casualties were reported.

The Serbs in Bosnia are seeking revenge for Croatia's attack on Serb- held western Slavonia last week, particularly around Banja Luka, where Serb refugees from Croatia have sought shelter. "The situation is very bad for the Croats in Banja Luka. Tensions between Serbs and Croats are very high," said a spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

Catholic churches have been destroyed and Croats beaten up in the area by Serbian paramilitaries, the UN said. Several thousand Serbs have remained in western Slavonia, and Zagreb has urged them to stay. But fear of the future under Croatian rule may tempt many to leave. Many Serbs who lived in Pakrac and Okucani in western Slavonia were already refugees from the 1991 war.

The UN is eager to proceed with implementing a four-point peace deal under which soldiers and civilians from the area may receive a UN escort to Serb-held Bosnia. Officials are concerned there may be Serbian refugees hiding in the woods between Okucani and the Sava river border with Bosnia. They have called on Croatia to respect the rights of all civilians.

Tensions have eased in Croatia, although a UN-brokered deal for the Croatian army and rebel Serbs to withdraw from a UN-patrolled buffer zone along Serb-held Sectors North, South and East collapsed before it began. The Croatian army withdrew a few soldiers and a tank from the line in the south, but reinforced troops breached the zone elsewhere.

"Large numbers of Croatian army soldiers continue to maintain positions around UN observation posts," Chris Gunness, a UN spokesman, said. The peace-keepers patrol a 2-km strip between the opposing forces under a cease-fire deal signed in March 1994. The agreement was violated last week by Zagreb's blitzkrieg in western Slavonia (Sector West), which is now under Croatian control.