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Sarajevo Shelling Resumes; Serbs Spurn NATO Ultimatum

By John Pomfret
The Washington Post

At least two artillery blasts rocked downtown Sarajevo late yesterday, just hours after the Bosnian Serb military rejected a NATO ultimatum to pull back their heavy weapons from around the beseiged Bosnian capital or face airtstrikes.

It was unclear last night which of Bosnia's warring factions had fired the shells, which slammed into the city less than 12 hours after Serb militia forces and Sarajevo's Slavic Muslim-led defenders had agreed to a U.N.-sponsored cease-fire around the city. But initial reports from U.N. officials played down the significance of the barrage and suggested that it was not sufficient to trigger retaliatory airstrikes under provisions of NATO's Wednesday ultimatum.

According to reports reaching New York from U.N. observers in Sarajevo, two artillery shells "of unknown origin" were fired into an area of the city where no civilians live. Muslim batteries responded quickly with two artillery rounds and later with five mortar shells. There were no immediate reports of casualties on either side.

In Washington, administration officials said that early intelligence information on the bombardment was inconclusive, with conflicting reports on whether artillery shelling or small arms fire had occurred. The NATO allies warned Wednesday that airstrikes would be launched against Serb artillery batteries if they were found responsible for new shelling of civilian targets in Sarajevo. The alliance also said it would bomb Serb heavy weapons if they were not pulled back at least 12 miles from the city center by Feb. 21.

Earlie, Mile Gvero, deputy commander of the Bosnian Serb military, rejected the NATO ultimatum to pull back his artillery from around Sarajevo and warned that his forces would use international-aid workers as human shields against any Western air attack on Serb positions.

"Any decision we make will not be less civilized than the one made by your countries," Gen. Mile Gvero told Western reporters at his mountain redoubt 45 miles east of Sarajevo. "If these countries bomb us, then their people will remain with us," said Gvero, whose powerful assemblage of tanks, artillery and heavy mortars has been pounding Sarajevo since the three-sided Bosnian war broke out 22 months ago.

Gvero, who had agreed to the U.N.-brokered truce around the city on Wednesday, issued his defiant declaration as 240 French U.N. troops were taking up positions between Serb and Muslim lines as part of that truce agreement, but his threats left uncertain whether that accord, or any such local agreement, can be now be implemented.

Nevertheless, while Serb snipers peered from windows in shell-shattered buildings, British Lt. Gen. Michael Rose, commander of U.N. forces in Bosnia, began initiating terms of the truce by positioning U.N. buffer forces at the Bridge of Brotherhood and Unity over Sarajevo's Miljacka River, an ironically-named crossing that has been the scene of bitter battles throughout the war and is one of the six front-line sites around Sarajevo where U.N. troops will be deployed.

Rose engineered the cease-fire following a mortar attack on an open-air market in Sarajevo Saturday that killed 68 people, the highest civilian death toll in the city in a single incident since the war began. Rose said both both sides had agreed to place their heavy weapons under U.N. control, halt all attacks and allow the United Nations to intersperse troops between the warring sides. If it succeeds, the accord could obviate any need for air strikes, Rose said.

Meanwhile, Bosnia's Muslim-led govenment agreed to Serb demands yesterday for establishment of a U.N. commission to investigate who was responsible for firing the mortar shell that devastated the Sarajevo market. The agreement allowed the desultory Bosnian peace talks to resume in Geneva against the backdrop of the NATO airstrike ultimatum, and with senior U.S. diplomatic officials in attendance for the first mtime.

It was that deadly mortar attack that galvanized NATO into demanding the Serbs withdraw their heavy weapons from around the city and apparently that also lead the Serbs to conclude the Sarajevo ceas-fire Wednesday in hopes of forestalling such a move by the Western allies. Many U.N. and Western governmant officials have blamed the Serbs for the mortar attack, but the Serbs have denied responsibility and claimed the Mulims themselves had fired the fatal shell in order to win sympathy for their cause in the West.

At Gvero's headquarters, meanwhile, the general seemd determined not to bow to give in to any Western presssure to weaken his position around the Bosnian capital. "We can never accept any kind of ultimatum," he told reporters, making clear that if the West chose to strike, the Serbs would use all means available -- even the lives of the hundreds of Western aid workers in Bosnia --to fight back.