Leading Article: An ultimatum now, talks later

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The Independent Online
IT WAS perhaps by mere chance that one Bosnian Serb mortar round created such carnage in the market-place of Sarajevo last weekend, but it is certain that for the second time this century the city has heard a shot that echoed around the civilised world. Whether cruelly targeted or random, unplanned and unloosed by a slivovitz-fuelled bandit, the mortar's impact generated a defining moment in a conflict littered with wasted opportunities and lost chances.

The European Union yesterday seemed to have found fresh resolve in asserting, as the foreign minister of France put it, that the siege of Sarajevo has gone on too long and must be brought to an enforced end. Downing Street talks of a changed climate and John Major's on-off endorsement of air action is on again. Lord Owen, meanwhile, bravely discusses the prospect of a negotiated end to the siege but, alas, his interlocutor remains the wretched Radovan Karadzic, a man whose regard for treaties and promises at this point deserves analysis purely as a psychiatric curiosity. Negotiations with Dr Karadzic on the issue are an exercise in pointless diplomacy. Even from the caution-lined corridors of the European Union there emerged yesterday a statement of consensus, in tune at last with public opinion. Enough, finally, was enough.

So what to do? If the affronted honour of France and the common sense of British military tradition are to move in harness the plan needs to be both practical and curt. A formal ultimatum from the member states of the European Union should be presented in Belgrade and to the Bosnian Serbs requiring the cessation of fire on Sarajevo forthwith, the withdrawal of Serb artillery from its effective radius around the city, and the collection of Serb heavy weapons under UN supervision pending a formal settlement. This to be enforced with the specific warning of air strikes against any position opening fire. Failure to comply with each stage of the withdrawal to be met with similar action. At the same time the robust new policy of Lieutenant-General Sir Michael Rose needs to be specifically supported by the European ministers.

It will be objected that Russia is bound to veto a severe resolution in the Security Council and that Greece is certain to dissent from concerted action by the European Union. There is a modest amount of Athenian wisdom in Greek policy towards the Balkans, and President Boris Yeltsin's concern for the rabid nationalist forces at his door is well-founded. But this is not the time to debate the subtleties of the Ottoman legacy and it is certainly not the moment to show craven weakness while under the gaze of Vladimir Zhirinovsky and his admirers. That is why the Europeans and the United States must act alone through Nato if necessary. There will be no quick solution in former Yugoslavia, and Lord Owen is right to say that only negotiations will end the overall conflict. But there are great issues at stake now, and great danger in delay.