BELGRADE — SERBIAN forces have defied the latest international calls to halt their ethnic purification drive in Bosnia-Herzegovina, launching a massive assault on the only town in the Muslim Slav-dominated eastern region they have yet to capture.
Western diplomats and officials of Bosnia's beleaguered government cited the weekend attack on Gorazde as fresh evidence of Serbian contempt for the world's leading powers, who were reluctant to take more-decisive action to end the bitter conflict.
The attack began only a day after the conclusion of the summit in Helsinki of the 52-nation Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), and three days after the end of the annual meeting of the leaders of the Group of Seven leading industrialized nations (G-7) in Munich, Germany.
Both meetings called for a halt to the war and condemned anew communist-ruled Serbia, the main political and financial backer of the Serbian offensive to annex portions of Bosnia-Herzegovina. But they again rejected a call by Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic for armed intervention, a move that Serbian leaders apparently took as a sign of vacillation. (CSCE stalls over Yugoslavia, Page 9.)
"You just had the G-7 meeting and the CSCE meeting, where people decided they do not want to treat this as a Persian Gulf kind of thing," said one Western diplomat in Belgrade. "They just want to hear good news about humanitarian aid."
Officials of Bosnia-Herzegovina's government of Muslim Slavs and moderate Croats and Serbs were unrestrained in their criticism.
The Western leaders' pledges of aid are cruelly inadequate, said Ejup Ganic, the Muslim Slav vice president, in a telephone interview. "Now the Serbs have launched a massive attack on Gorazde and their offensive continues."
"It looks like Belgrade has calculated that the West will not intervene," he said.
In staging the assault, Serbian leaders also appeared to have taken advantage of the world's preoccupation with Sarajevo, where international news media have focused on the UN-organized airlift of humanitarian relief.
Backed by a large armored force and the cover of intense shellfire, Serbian forces advanced on Gorazde, a sleepy industrial town nestled between the verdant hills of the Drina River valley.
The town is 70 percent Muslim Slav and 30 percent Serb. Along with 40,000 residents, it houses 30,000 Muslim Slav refugees who fled from other towns along the republic's eastern border region with Serbia captured in the opening stages of the more than three-month Serb offensive.
As other towns such as Visegrad and Foca fell, Gorazde's citizens tried to avoid bloodshed, organizing a forum of prominent Muslim Slav, Serbian, and Croatian citizens who pledged to remain neutral.
But Serbian extremists, including members of the police force, cleaned out Gorazde's territorial defense armory and took over its main factory, an ammunition manufacturing plant. They set up barricades and bunkers on surrounding roads and hilltops, from which they began shelling the town with weaponry provided by the Serb-dominated Yugoslav Army, and waited for reinforcements.
The capture of Gorazde would give the Yugoslav Army-equipped Serbian Democratic Party (SDS) control of the entire eastern region of Bosnia-Herzegovina and bring it to the verge of realizing its goal of capturing 70 percent of the republic.
"If they do that, then they just have to take a few more areas," Mr. Ganic said. "Then the only city of strategic importance left is Sarajevo."
Since telephone lines were severed, Sarajevo has maintained contact with Gorazde through ham radio operators. Electricity has been cut for weeks and there reportedly is little food or medicine.
International aid organizations aware of the town's plight have been barred by the Serbs from delivering relief supplies despite Serbian government pledges.
"We are really afraid of what is happening there," said a UN High Commissioner for Refugees official. "The situation is as bad as Sarajevo, perhaps even worse."
But the most serious concerns are for what will happen after what the SDS's official information organ referred to as the "liberation" of Gorazde by its "Serbian defenders."
Non-Serb residents may share the fate of the hundreds of thousands of Muslim Slavs and Croats driven from other parts of the region by Serbian ethnic purification operations, including house-burnings, forced deportations, and intimidation.
Western diplomats and international relief workers believe that Serbian fighters also have massacred hundreds, perhaps thousands, of non-Serbs in a bid to create a pure Serbian region along the frontier with Serbia, with which they seek to merge their self-declared state.
While all sides have engaged in such "ethnic cleansing" tactics in the areas they control, international relief workers say the scope of the methods employed by Croatian and Muslim Slav militias pale before that of the Serbs.
The attack on Gorazde prompted a call by Bosnia's Muslim Slav-dominated military for all its units in the region to converge on the town to prevent its capture.
Sefer Halilovic, Bosnia's top commander, also called for "the international community to prevent and halt massacres of the innocent civilian population."
But, with Western powers apparently intent on restricting their role in the Balkan morass, there seems almost no chance that appeal will be answered.