NATO will decide this week whether to launch air strikes against Bosnian Serb targets after a mortar bomb killed 68 people in a Sarajevo market at the weekend.
The attack, widely blamed on the Serbian forces besieging the city, drew anger, revulsion and calls for action from across Europe and the United States. But the key members of the European Union and the alliance are still divided over what action to take; many are warning that military action would undercut the chances of a peace deal.
The United Nations Secretary- General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, asked Nato last night to authorise air strikes 'against artillery positions in or around Sarajevo, which are responsible for attacks on civilian targets'.
Nato has been committed to launching air strikes to prevent the 'strangulation' of Sarajevo since August. Aircraft in Italy are ready to attack at three hours' notice, according to military sources, and the Italian government yesterday underlined its readiness to help.
British and French reluctance to jeopardise peace talks and risk reprisals against peace-keeping troops has prevented any decision until now. But there were clear signs yesterday that the mood had shifted.
France, which asked for the Nato meeting, wanted it to deliver an ultimatum to the Serbs: lift the siege of the city or face air attack. 'The massacre perpetrated yesterday is unbearable and constitutes a turning point in the Bosnian drama,' said Alain Juppe, France's Foreign Minister.
Serbian troops must pull back, UN troops must collect heavy weapons, Sarajevo must be put under UN administration and the EU's peace plan must be applied, he said.
Belgium, which has troops in Bosnia, also backed air strikes, as did Germany, which has not.
President Bill Clinton said yesterday he had not ruled out air strikes in retaliation for the attack, but first wanted to press hard for a negotiated peace. 'The appropriate thing to do now is to see if this horrible incident can be the spur to a vigorous effort to achieve a peace agreement, and that's what we ought to focus on now,' the President said after meeting his national security advisers.
Britain clearly remains wary, although Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, also said a Nato meeting was necessary. 'We have to judge the results of any air strike but if it could help the aims I have mentioned it would be right to go ahead with it,' said Mr Hurd, who flew to Brussels last night.
Bosnia's Prime Minister, Haris Silajdzic, accused the United Nations of appeasement. 'It looks to me . . . that the Serbs are going to get away again with a massacre,' he said.
Today European foreign ministers meeting in Brussels will say that the atrocity only underlines the need for a negotiated solution, and will press for international arbitration. They are unlikely to go much further on air strikes as that is the preserve of Nato. A meeting of Nato ambassadors will follow the EU gathering. But it runs the risk of exposing again the fatal disunity of the West over the wisdom of further intervention.
Although officials and diplomats in Brussels said last week there was consensus for some sort of tougher military action, none exists for punitive air strikes, they emphasised.
The overriding aim is to get a longer-term settlement, and EU ministers will today discuss initiatives to boost the peace talks in Geneva, sources in Brussels say. The main aim of the meeting, before Saturday's atrocity, was to give those negotiations some impetus and put pressure on the US to get more involved. In particular, the EU wants the US to persuade the Bosnian government that it can expect no help from outside and that it must negotiate for a settlement.
The Bosnian Serb, Muslim and Croatian leaders were meeting in Sarajevo on Saturday and were about to discuss the city when the mortars struck, Lord Owen, the EU peace envoy, said yesterday. 'They had to suspend the meeting. In fact, after nearly two weeks of persuasion, we had reached the point where the Bosnian Serbs were ready to take Sarajevo outside an overall peace settlement and to try to demilitarise it and have UN administration in Sarajevo . . . I am absolutely determined it is not aborted,' he said.
But further UN-mediated talks between Serbs and the Muslim-led government broke down yesterday, Yasushi Akashi, the UN envoy to former Yugoslavia, said. The UN Security Council would probably convene an emergency session 'very soon, even tomorrow (today)' to decide on action with a greater sense of urgency than ever before.
He said the biggest obstacle to an accord was the Muslims' insistence that Serbian artillery ringing Sarajevo be pulled back beyond range and put under UN control. Bosnia's Muslim President, Alija Izetbegovic, said later: 'The Serb side wants a pale monitoring system (of heavy weapons) which does not prevent them from shelling the city again. We shall not accept it.'
Russia had surprisingly little to say about Saturday's attack. A brief statement from the Foreign Ministry said: 'We are indignant at the terrorist act committed in Sarajevo and entailing the deaths of dozens of residents of that long-suffering city.' It called for an impartial inquiry and punishment for the guilty, 'whoever they may be'.
Russia has never approved of air strikes to punish Bosnian Serb aggression, but Mr Yeltsin will be even less likely to give the West his blessing with the looming presence at home of Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who says an attack on the Serbs is tantamount to declaring war on Russia.
Pressure for action grows, page 7
Letters, page 13
Robert Fisk, page 14
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