The Associated Press

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina -- Bosnian Serbs appeared to pull back from Gorazde and allowed new U.N. peacekeepers into the battered enclave late Saturday, averting for now threatened NATO strikes. A top U.N. official said a cease-fire was generally holding.

Serbs earlier persisted in shelling the town hours past a U.N.-mediated noon cease-fire deadline, killing 21 people. The United Nations reportedly turned down a NATO request for clearance to bomb Serb positions.

A spokesman for U.N. chief Boutros Boutros-Ghali said he would approve strikes if the Serbs failed to meet a NATO deadline to cease fire and withdraw 1.9 miles from the town center by 2:01 a.m. Sunday (8:01 p.m. EDT Saturday).

It was not clear if the Serbs had totally complied with NATO demands. But in a statement after the deadline passed, the top U.N. official for former Yugoslavia said the situation had not required air strikes.

"The compliance is quite positive," Yasushi Akashi said in a statement. "The cease-fire is generally holding" and the approximately 200 newly arrived U.N. troops in Gorazde were deploying "between Serb and Bosnian Muslim forces."

The peacekeepers were deploying on a perimeter 1.9 miles from Gorazde center, said Col. Richard Pernod, a U.N. spokesman in Sarajevo.

French Gen. Andre Soubirou, the U.N. commander for Sarajevo, reported from Gorazde that the town was calm shortly after the NATO deadline elapsed, according to Pernod.

A town official, Esad Ohranovic, reported by ham radio that only small-arms fire was heard after the deadline and that Bosnian army scouts had detected some Serb weapons withdrawals.

The NATO ultimatum, issued Friday, threatened air strikes unless Serbs immediately halted their assault on Gorazde, a U.N.-declared "safe area" where a three-week Serb offensive has killed more than 700 people.

NATO also demanded that the Serbs withdraw their forces and weapons 1.9 miles from the center of Gorazde and allow U.N. peacekeepers in. Serb leaders later agreed to a U.N.-brokered cease-fire, beginning at noon Saturday, and to a withdrawal by midnight Saturday (6 p.m. EDT).

On Saturday, the Bosnian Serbs initially continued to test the resolve of the world community.

Aid workers in Gorazde reported heavy shelling before and after the cease-fire deadline. The hospital and a building housing local U.N. staff were hit, they said.

Ohranovic, the town official, said U.N. medical workers who entered with the U.N. convoy had gone to Gorazde's hospital to deliver desperately needed medicines.

Spokesman Kris Janowski of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said 21 people were killed and 53 wounded in Gorazde between 8 a.m. and 7 p.m. Saturday. That brought the causalty toll in the offensive to 715 dead and 1,970 wounded.

But U.N. military observers in Gorazde reported late Saturday "that military activity seems to be dropping off quite appreciably," said a U.N. spokesman in Sarajevo, Maj. Dacre Holloway.

He said aerial reconnaissance showed that Serb equipment "seems to be moving from the Gorazde area." It was not known if the apparent pull-back would satisfy NATO demands.

Later Saturday, five major shells hit at about 9 p.m., Janowski quoted reports from the town as saying. The reports said one Gorazde neighborhood and the villages of Habjari and Kazagici were on fire.

Serb leaders met for a second day with officials in the Yugoslav capital of Belgrade and agreed to allow the deployment of peacekeepers 1.9 miles from the town center, said a U.N. statement.

They agreed that as soon as the peacekeepers were in place to monitor the cease-fire, all heavy weapons would be placed under U.N. control or withdrawn "out of range" of Gorazde.

The agreement was reached in talks Yasushi Akashi, the senior U.N. official in former Yugoslavia, held with President Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia, Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and his military commander, Gen. Ratko Mladic.

"With cooperation of everybody who participated in these discussions, we have been able to avert a major crisis," Akashi said.

Serbs have taken most of the Gorazde pocket in eastern Bosnia, which is home to about 65,000 residents and refugees. There are virtually no medical supplies left in Gorazde, and shelling has wrecked the hospital's operating rooms.

A NATO source in Brussels, Belgium said as the noon deadline for a cease-fire loomed, the alliance "asked the U.N. for authorization to launch air strikes, given that the shelling had resumed.

So far, we are still waiting for the green light from the U.N. We must have that." The source spoke on condition of anonymity.

In Washington, a U.S. administration official said that the United Nations had argued for the delay because they felt the NATO threat was "having an effect" and the Serbs were moving belatedly to comply.

Bosnian Prime Minster Haris Silajdzic agrily suggested that U.N. delays were causing more deaths in Gorazde.

Either the U.N. commander in Bosnia or NATO's commander for southern Europe can call for air strikes, but both have to agree before they are carried out.

The Yugoslav news agency Tanjug said Serb units claimed they were "forced to retaliate" for a Muslim attack on the east bank of the Drina River, which divides Gorazde. The Serbs claim that side of the river as theirs.

Countless cease-fires have collapsed in Bosnia's two-year-old war, but this one was given a better chance because of NATO's threat and the participation of more major players in the truce agreement.

A similar NATO ultimatum in Febuary concerning Sarajevo led to a cease-fire agreement that has generally held.

The U.N. Security Council held closed consultations Saturday on a Russian request to review the possibility of NATO air strikes. But it took no action against the Serbs.

In Moscow, Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev called the NATO ultimatum an "appropriate response," throwing Russian support behind the NATO warning. Moscow has often shielded its traditional ally.

Bosnia's minority Serbs, armed by the federal Yugoslav army, launched the war two years ago when they rebelled against a Muslim-Croat vote for independence from Serb-dominated Yugoslavia. More than 200,000 people have been killed or are missing. Read Next Article