Serbian Offensive Prompts US To Move Into Yugoslav Caldron

AS the smoldering war in what used to be called Yugoslavia flares anew, the United States is starting to take a more active interest in ending the fighting.

For months, while battles raged between Croatian and Serbian forces, the US was content to let European nations take the lead in trying to bring peace.

Now, with Serbian troops smashing through the breakaway republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina, American officials are actively threatening to isolate Serbia politically and economically from the West.

In recent days, Washington and the Serb government in Belgrade have traded increasingly bitter words, with Serbs crying "bias" and the US dismissing such charges as the posturing of the guilty.

"The Serbian civilian and military leaders bear the overwhelming burden of responsibility for the violence in Bosnia-Herzegovina," said State Department spokesman Richard Boucher on April 20.

Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Ralph Johnson flew into Bosnia last weekend aboard a plane carrying aid to the beleaguered city of Sarajevo. He is expected to visit Belgrade for talks with Serb leaders later this week and is likely to report back on whether the US should sever official diplomatic ties with Serbia.

The new Yugoslav uproar comes after it had seemed that, with the deployment of United Nations peacekeepers in Croatia, peace might be at hand. But fighting surged in the ethnically-mixed territory of Bosnia early this month just as the US and the European Community (EC) recognized it as an independent nation (EC role, Page 6). (The US recognized Croatia and Slovenia at the same time, an action the EC had taken earlier.)

It is not clear why Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic has thrown a spark on the tinder of Bosnia, whose population is about 60 percent Croat and Muslim and about 40 percent ethnic Serb.

Serb ambitions to carve off slices of Croatia appear to have been largely stymied by the positioning of UN forces, and there is no reason to think the international community will allow in Bosnia what it won't permit elsewhere in Yugoslavia.

"This is the Balkans," says Stephen Larrabee, a RAND Corporation senior staff member and expert on Yugoslavia. "Things aren't always rational."

Perhaps Milosevic is counting on scarce UN resources not extending into more former Yugoslav republics. Perhaps he and other Serb leaders want a continuing crisis to head off a growing disenchantment with the war among their own people.

In the US, many analysts think US and EC recognition of Bosnia as an independent country didn't throw fuel on the fire. If anything they feel the US should have granted recognition sooner. "It does give you more leverage" over events, says Mr. Larrabee.

Analysts point to a number of reasons the US has taken a more active approach to the crisis now that Bosnia is the issue, instead of Croatia. For one, since the breakaway republics have recently been accorded the status of independent nations, the Serb actions in Bosnia constitute an invasion across international boundaries, rather than a civil war.

For another, the EC never really seemed to pull its act together in regard to Yugoslav peacekeeping. A perception may have taken root in European nations that US hesitance on Yugoslavia was an indication that America was losing interest in Europe. With its statements in recent days, the US has made it clear that it now intends to exercise some kind of leadership role in the crisis.

Finally, it may simply be easier to stick up for Bosnia than Croatia. The Croat leadership has been insensitive in regard to its own Serbian minority population and has trampled on some internal freedoms - not that these actions justify Serbian armed attack. The Bosnian leadership, by contrast, has accomodated Serb demands and searched for political compromise in an attempt to head off aggression.

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