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Bosnian Serbs have freed 55 Canadian soldiers who had been held for 15 days as protection against possible NATO airstrikes, U.N. officials said Thursday.

Their release was a small gesture by Bosnian Serbs intended to ease tensions with the United Nations. But the Serbs insisted there could be no broad improvement in relations unless NATO promises not to launch any more airstrikes.Serbs, who have forced U.N. operations to a halt, were still holding more than 300 peacekeepers hostage. The failure of recent NATO airstrikes to cow the Serbs led to an acceleration of plans to pull all 24,000 U.N. peacekeepers out of Bosnia.

The peacekeepers were seized following three NATO airstrikes two weeks ago. Several groups have been released previously, but the Serbs have said they won't release them all or ease restrictions on movement of U.N. troops until the threat of strikes is over.

Capt. Tom Newton of the Canadian battalion based in Visoko, northwest of Sarajevo, said nine soldiers already had arrived back at base, and the others were expected later in the day.

The United Nations, meanwhile, corroborated reports that Croatian soldiers were fighting in western Bosnia. Serbs have threatened to retaliate for Croatian involvement, increasing the risk of a new fighting in Bosnia and Croatia.

On Wednesday, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization gave its military experts two days to come up with detailed plans to withdraw all peacekeepers from Bosnia.

Foreign Minister Alain Juppe of France, which has the most soldiers in Bosnia, told NATO the situation for peacekeepers was becoming "untenable."

NATO officials said a force of 20,000 troops would be needed to protect the peacekeepers if they have to withdraw under fire.


Additional Information

U.S. may send troops

President Clinton has offered to contribute "a substantial portion" of combat troops to a potential NATO force designed to evacuate U.N. peacekeepers in Bosnia, administration officials said Thursday. The decision represents a sharp turnabout for Clinton, who has refused to join allies in sending ground forces to Bosnia. "The president believes it is important the United States, as a leader of NATO, be ready to assist our allies if their forces are in danger," one administration official said.