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Serbs bow air strikes on hold


SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina -- Nearly all the Serbian guns ringing the Bosnian capital are out of action, United Nations officials said early this morning after a frantic day of diplomatic meetings, maneuvering behind the scenes and hoisting rusty cannons out of snowbanks.

"The work accomplished by UNPROFOR up to this point assures us there is no need for air strikes," said the U.N. envoy to the former Yugoslavia, Yasushi Akashi, referring to the U.N. peacekeeping force. He spoke in Zagreb, the Croatian capital, after conferring by phone with the NATO command.

But President Clinton called on the United States and its allies to remain vigilant and said all factions in the conflict should recognize that the ultimatum still stands.

"The deadline has not been extended," a statement from the president said.

"Any heavy weapons in the exclusion zone not under U.N. control are, and will remain, subject to air strikes."

NATO planes hummed over Sarajevo at exactly 1 a.m. local time (7 p.m. Sunday EST), the hour at which the Western alliance had warned that air strikes could begin if the Serbs had not removed or handed over all of their heavy weapons within about 12 miles of Sarajevo. The jets seemed to be carrying out reconnaissance missions.

"I am reasonably encouraged," Lt. Gen. Sir Michael Rose, the U.N. commander in Bosnia, told reporters last night. He said that only nine artillery sites in the mountains, where deep snow, icy roads and broken-down equipment have hampered the Serbs' efforts to comply with the deadline, had not been inspected or brought under U.N. control by nightfall.

Sir Michael said that he had "soldiers out working tonight" so he could provide "as clear a picture of what is happening on the ground as I possibly can" by morning.

As the NATO deadline drew near, U.N. officials appeared eager to avoid having to call in air strikes on the remaining Serbian gun positions around Sarajevo despite repeated statements by some NATO officials that compliance must be total by 1 a.m. local time today.

A similar eagerness was expressed by the Russian envoy who worked out a last-minute, face-saving "initiative" last week for the Serbs to withdraw or turn over their heavy weapons, Deputy Foreign Minister Vitaly Churkin.

"Any kind of air strike would create a qualitatively different situation, would make negotiation impossible," Mr. Churkin said yesterday.

Up in Serbian-held areas in the mountains, the first units of about 400 Russian troops arriving to join the U.N. contingent were hailed as saviors by crowds.

"If one wants to find an excuse for air raids, one can," Mr. Churkin said. "That's why we were alarmed by the information that we received that some individuals within NATO countries were arguing in favor of 'strike and negotiate.' "

The "strike and negotiate" option that some NATO officials had been reported to be considering would involve a limited "symbolic" strike on the laggard guns to prove to the Serbs that NATO was serious.

But Sir Michael and his staff appeared confident that the complex, rapidly evolving situation was moving in their favor last night.

Over the past few days, much of the heavy artillery and many of the tanks that have pounded the city for 22 months from the mountains above were pulled back beyond the 12.4-mile "exclusion zone" delimited around the city by NATO and the U.N. force.

Under the terms of the NATO ultimatum, issued after a mortar shell killed 68 people in a crowded city marketplace, all heavy weapons -- mortars, anti-aircraft guns, multiple-rocket launchers, howitzers and cannons -- not withdrawn from the zone are to be placed under the "control" of the United Nations.

U.N. commanders have said that this means they are to be placed in compounds ringed by barbed wire and guarded by unarmed military observers and a platoon of armed U.N. infantry troops. In principle, the weapons could be retrieved only by combat, which would automatically bring down reprisals such as air strikes or other use of force.

By last night, the U.N. commanders reported, the Serbs had turned in 225 heavy weapons at eight sites.

The Muslim-led Bosnian government, which has far fewer heavy weapons, had turned in 43 to the Ukrainian contingent of U.N. troops based in downtown Sarajevo.

Using air reconnaissance and verification patrols on the ground, U.N. observers counted 41 sites where guns or clusters of guns had not been accounted for, Sir Michael said last night. His ground patrols checked 32 of the sites, of which 23 turned out to be empty. Nine others had guns that had not been moved because they were broken down or because of snow and poor road conditions. Of these, five were under the control of U.N. soldiers and the four others soon would be, Sir Michael said.

The situation remained far from stable. It is widely presumed that some weapons, such as mortars, are being hidden in the hills. And the heavier weapons that are being withdrawn from the Sarajevo area are expected to be transferred to other battlefields in Bosnia.

Nevertheless, the silencing of the guns in a cease-fire that has held for a week and a half represents a remarkable change in the brutal siege of Sarajevo, as Sir Michael has moved swiftly to capitalize on the NATO threat, putting together his own ad-hoc peace plan.

Officials of Bosnia's Muslim-led government were deeply suspicious that the Serbs still had guns in firing positions.

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