Leading Article: A test for the UN and Mr Yeltsin

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THERE was no realistic alternative to bombing the Serbs when they directly challenged the United Nations by attacking Gorazde. Of course, it would have been better to have told them clearly last week that they would be bombed if they continued their aggression. Had they believed this, more lives would have been saved and many difficulties avoided. Instead, a stream of conflicting signals emerged from Washington that probably persuaded them they could attack with impunity.

One would have expected Washington to avoid that type of mistake after inadvertently giving Saddam Hussein the green light to invade Kuwait, but the administration has been as divided as the Western alliance over Bosnia. The Serbs know this all too well, and Bosnian Muslims have had to pay the price.

Now that the bombs have fallen there can be no going back. The battered credibility of the United Nations, Nato and the United States depends on their maintaining the will to face down the Serbs. So does any hope of a peace settlement. The argument that the bombs hamper the peace process is the opposite of the truth. Just as the Muslims rejected earlier settlements because they believed they could improve their position on the battlefield, so the Serbs are now fighting to remove Muslim enclaves that they fear will otherwise be sanctified by a settlement.

Not until the Serbs are persuaded that further fighting will be fruitless and costly will they become serious about negotiation. This means that the door to talks must remain open. The Serbs must be in no doubt that the search for a settlement continues and that they are invited to take part.

Here the Russians still have a chance to play a role. Boris Yeltsin has complained that he was not consulted about the bombing, although he would have been more embarrassed if he had been because his objections would have been ignored. His grumbles are intended primarily for domestic consumption. They reflect the resentful, anti-Western mood that is now taking hold in Moscow and which Mr Yeltsin no longer has the power to resist. As a result of this shift in the political wind, Russian co-operation can no longer be taken for granted in Bosnia or anywhere else. This would be true even if without the bombing, so the UN decision cannot be held responsible.

Gorazde, therefore, provides a test for the Russians as well as for the UN. Are they still interested in contributing to peace, or do they just want to strike attitudes for a domestic audience? Mr Yeltsin has suggested putting a UN force into the city. As a temporary solution, this may have some merit, once the Serbs have been stopped. Yet the fact that he did not, or could not, dissuade the Serbs from attacking Gorazde suggests Mr Yeltsin's influence is limited. To help him, and in the hope of getting help in return, the West should make a point of consulting him on peace plans. But he cannot be given a veto, even at the cost of appearing to contribute to the turbulence in Moscow.