IN THE first Nato air strike of the Bosnian conflict, two American F-16C fighter jets yesterday dropped bombs on Serbian forces in an attempt to halt their advance on the Muslim town of Gorazde, 35 miles south-east of Sarajevo. President Bill Clinton and the United Nations Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, warned the Serbs to pull back or face more attacks.
The attack came after a request for Nato help by the commander of the United Nations peace-keepers in Bosnia, Lieutenant-General Sir Michael Rose. The Pentagon said Nato military observers near Gorazde had come under Serbian fire.
Earlier it had become clear that Bosnian Serb forces were in a position to overrun the town, which has a population of 65,000 Muslims and last year was designated a UN 'safe- area'. More than 100 people have been killed and 400 wounded in the latest Serbian assault on Gorazde.
The Serbs have made substantial gains in the south-east of the pocket, and yesterday captured Gradina Heights overlooking the town, advancing to within a mile of the centre. Refugees poured over bridges into Gorazde, shaken by a barrage after a lightning assault swept aside Muslim defences that had withstood two years of siege.
Peter Kessler, a UN spokesman, said before the Nato strike: 'There is real panic south of Gorazde and in the town itself. The people are in frenzy as there are rumours and reports of people being killed in the overrun villages. Refugees are bringing stories of decapitation.'
President Clinton said Nato was ready to conduct more strikes if necessary, but he hoped yesterday's action would persuade the Serbs to put an end to the assault on Gorazde and resume ceasefire talks. He confirmed that at least one target identified by UN personnel on the ground had been struck. Madeleine Albright, the US ambassador to the UN, described the strike as 'picture perfect'.
President Clinton said the Serbian forces had been warned that an attack on Gorazde, where UN peace-keepers are stationed, would trigger a response from Nato. It was clear UN personnel were at risk when attacks against Gorazde resumed yesterday, he added.
General Rose's request received almost instant UN and Nato approval, officials said. The two American jets were deployed from the Aviano airbase in northern Italy. They attacked Serbian 'pockets' on the outskirts of Gorazde at 6.20pm local time. The F-16C jets dived out of low rain cloud to drop three 500lb bombs on a Serb artillery position targeting Gorazde and Serbian shelling of the town ceased 18 minutes later, General Rose said.
It was the threat of air strikes in February that helped to bring calm to Sarajevo. Although two Serbian jets were shot down by Nato planes in the same month, this is the first air strike against targets on the ground. One report said two Serbian tanks were destroyed.
Appearing on American television just minutes before the strikes, the US Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, emphasised that the US would quickly answer any call for assistance from General Rose. The US, he said, 'has an obligation and a right to respond along with Nato colleagues'.
In an intense afternoon of diplomatic activity in Washington yesterday, the administration received direct confirmation from the Bosnian government in Sarajevo that it would be willing to continue negotiations for a ceasefire in the Gorazde area and for an overall settlement in the country. 'Even earlier today there seemed some movement towards this and we hope we can continue with it,' a State Department official said.
In Sarajevo, the Bosnian Prime Minister, Haris Silajdzic, commented: 'After three days of negotiations and double-crossing by the Bosnian-Serb representatives, Nato and Unprofor in Bosnia have decided to act.'
On Saturday, General Rose gave both sides 48 hours to reflect on their positions before returning to discussions about a ceasefire in Gorazde. Mr Christopher yesterday suggested: 'If we can get that ceasefire in Gorazde - a cessation of hostilities - then we will have the opportunity to achieve the overall settlement we've been seeking for a long time.'
There remained the danger of a Serbian backlash both on the ground and in negotiations. The Serbian news agency portrayed the air strikes as 'a clear act of aggression against the Serbian people'. 'Nato aircraft fired four missiles at civilian targets,' said General Milan Gvero, deputy commander of the Bosnian Serb army, adding that there were 'civilian casualties'.
In the two-year war the Bosnian Serbs have captured 70 per cent of the country. They would probably be happy to have peace but Bosnian Muslims fear that would set the gains in concrete. After their peace agreement with the Croats, the Muslims feel they are on the ascendant, and hope to recover territory. Until yesterday, the UN had not used its full powers, emphasising it would attack only if its troops were threatened. Fearing retaliation, the it last night suspended all aid convoys in Bosnia's Serbian held areas.
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