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Leading Article: Serbs still need outside pressure

THE CHANCE of ending the war in Bosnia is in danger of slipping away. The Bosnian Serbs have rejected the federation offered by the new alliance of Muslims and Croats. Serbian forces have been pounding the Muslim enclave of Gorazde, which was declared a UN 'safe area' almost a year ago. Savage ethnic cleansing continues with atrocities such as those in Prijedor last week. The UN is also drawn into ethnic cleansing when it is asked to rescue beleaguered minorities.

The most visible response by the West so far has been its refusal to send the reinforcements requested by Lieutenant-General Sir Michael Rose. A case can be made for saying that the presence of more Nato troops would contribute to freezing the situation, whereas a just settlement still demands Serbian withdrawals. As a signal, however, the refusal must be read by the Serbs as further evidence that the West's commitment is at best half-hearted.

It is, therefore, important to keep up as much pressure as possible, especially by working on the differences between the Bosnian Serbs and the leadership in Belgrade. The more militant Bosnian Serbs are persuading themselves that American attention will soon wander, that divisions in the Western alliance will again paralyse action, that the Russian presence will inhibit Nato air strikes, and that Vladimir Zhirinovsky will become president of Russia before the 1996 elections, and come rushing to the rescue of Greater Serbia.

Fortunately, a different reading of the situation is beginning to impinge on the leadership in Belgrade. President Slobodan Milosevic seems to realise that time is no longer on the side of the Serbs. The Muslim-Croat alliance is holding, strongly backed by the Americans, Germans and Russians. Muslim forces are becoming stronger and better organised, whereas Serbian forces are suffering from shortages and low morale. In serious fighting, the Serbs could be driven back. At the same time, the sanctions against Serbia, although full of holes, are adding to strains in Belgrade and threatening the position of Mr Milosevic.

If Western pressure can be maintained, it should reinforce the spread of realism in Belgrade by showing the Serbs they can only lose by continuing to fight. It is also time for the Russians to play their hand more firmly. When they sent troops to Sarajevo, their main concern was to be acknowledged as a power with interests in the region. So far, they have behaved constructively. Indeed, they have disappointed the Serbs, who did not realise the largely phoney mythology of Serbian solidarity would take second place to Russia's national interest, which is to avoid a Balkan war.

Nevertheless, the Russians can only really earn their place at the table by delivering the Serbs to a settlement. With the West leaning hard on the Croats, and ready to press the Muslims to settle when the terms are right, there is just a chance of ending the war by the summer. It will be lost if outside pressure is not maintained.