BONN — AS popular support grows in the West for breaking the siege of Sarajevo, NATO met yesterday to consider issuing an ultimatum to Bosnian Serbs to withdraw from the hills around the Bosnian capital, or face punitive airstrikes.
Assembling in Brussels, representatives of the 16 members of NATO appeared to generally support the ultimatum proposal being pushed by the United States and France.
But some member nations, particularly Canada and Greece, expressed deep reservations about NATO military reprisals. A final decision had not been reached at press time.
The Bosnian Serbs agreed to withdraw heavy weaponry from around Sarajevo and put it under United Nations monitoring, UN peacekeeping commander Gen. Michael Rose said yesterday. The Bosnian Serb army and Muslim-led Bosnian government forces have agreed to a cease-fire in the Bosnian capital to begin at noon today, General Rose said. Previous cease-fires have not held.
The ultimatum, proposed initially by France, came about after Saturday's mortar blast in a crowded Sarajevo market that killed at least 68 people and wounded about 200 others. Bosnian Serb leaders deny their forces fired the mortar shell. But many Western governments hold the Bosnian Serbs responsible.
Under the proposal, NATO would give Bosnian Serb forces up to 10 days to withdraw their heavy artillery near Sarajevo to positions at least 13 miles from the city. If the Bosnian Serbs failed to act, NATO would respond by bombing their strongholds in an effort to compel compliance.
Canadian, Greek, and other officials say NATO military action could lead to a widening of the war, endangering UN peacekeeping forces on the ground, and requiring the eventual deployment of NATO ground forces. Canada has a contingent of about 2,000 troops there.
Russia has denounced the ultimatum idea, and President Yeltsin was said to be contacting other leaders to try to avert Western airstrikes.
Greek and Canadian leaders did not appear ready to veto the proposal. ``We will not veto a NATO decision because, if we do, it will make Greece part of the Yugoslav crisis,'' government spokesman Evangelos Venizelos told reporters in Athens.
NATO has already issued several warnings about possible reprisal bombings. Public sentiment, particularly in the US, appears to be more accepting of a potential use of force. A recent ABC News survey showed Americans supported possible airstrikes around Sarajevo by a 57 percent to 37 percent margin.
``Selective airstrikes on vulnerable Serb positions and supply line would not bring peace, but they could restore the credibility which is vital to any form of diplomacy,'' wrote Josef Joffe in the German Suddeutsche Zeitung daily.