President Boris Yeltsin warned yesterday that Russia might give more than humanitarian aid to the Serbs if Nato persisted with what he called its "unacceptable" air strikes in Bosnia.
The West has dismissed his previous complaints as being intended to appease a domestic pro-Serb lobby. But Mr Yeltsin said he was addressing his remarks to an international news conference and expected the world to take them seriously.
Mr Yeltsin's spokesman later issued a statement demanding a halt to the Nato strikes because of doubts over who carried out the attack on Sarajevo which prompted them. "Russia insists that the United Nations look again at the situation in Bosnia in the light of new evidence on the blasts in the Muslim regions of Sarajevo,'' Sergei Medvedev said. ''Until then, Nato military action in Bosnia should be halted." Moscow's media has cited reports saying a Russian military official has evidence that the mortar attack on Sarajevo last week, in which 38 people were killed, was not carried out by Serbs.
Last night Russia called for a public UN Security Council debate on Nato's actions.
Speaking before the news from Geneva of a breakthrough in US-sponsored peace talks, Mr Yeltsin said Russia was changing its position because the situation had changed. "Before the Muslims were not so aggressive, before the Croats were not taking territory. Why are there no sanctions against them? Why are only the Serbs being punished?
"In future we will have to respond adequately and help the Serbs. I have already signed a decree on humanitarian aid. If these actions [air strikes] continue, then things will become hotter.''
Mr Yeltsin did not specify, however, what extra support he had in mind. Instead he called for an international peace conference which he said could be held in Moscow in October if other countries were interested.
Russia was a part of Europe, whose views the West ignored at its peril. The air strikes in Bosnia showed "what Nato is capable of", he said, reiterating his objection to the expansion of the Western alliance.
If Nato reached Russia's border, Cold War military blocs would be re- established and "the flame of war would burst out across the whole of Europe".
The German Defence Minister, Volker Ruhe, rejected this, saying: "It is the unnecessary language of confrontation. In Nato and in Europe, we are concerned with co-operation and not with threats."
Despite Mr Yeltsin's denial that he was playing to the home gallery, his rhetoric should be seen in the context of the campaign for parliamentary elections in December. Commun- ists and nationalists look likely to improve their strong position in the Duma (lower house) and the President has been obliged to absorb their ideas.
But he said he would take the necessary legal measures to make sure extremists who violated the constitution did not come to power and would encourage parties which advocated democracy and reform in Russia.
On the delicate subject of Chechnya, Mr Yeltsin said the region should abandon its hope of independence as "nobody can leave Russia".
He suggested his erstwhile political enemy, Ruslan Khasbulatov, an ethnicChechen, might have a role to play in the region. Mr Khasbulatov led the hardline uprising against Mr Yeltsin in October 1993. "I think he has become wiser over time," Mr Yeltsin said.
A step nearer to peace, page 17