BELGRADE — WITH international peace and humanitarian efforts stymied, an intransigent Bosnian Serb leadership appears intent on achieving military victory in the war over Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Western diplomats here say privately that neither their governments nor the United Nations will take sufficient steps to deter the Bosnian Serbs from completing the conquest of their self-declared state.
Serb advances, they warn, will render all but meaningless the peace plan brokered by mediators Cyrus Vance and Lord David Owen and will likely lead to a stalemate that could drag on the bloodshed for years.
Says French Lt. Gen. Philippe Morillon, the UN commander in the former Yugoslav republic: "We are in a critical period." (Options for the UN, Page 6.)
Bosnian Serb forces in the past two weeks have blocked UN humanitarian convoys, bombarded UN helicopters evacuating the wounded, and flouted the UN-imposed no-fly zone.
They have relentlessly pursued their offensive against the eastern town of Srebrenica, where about 60,000 Muslims - half of them refugees - endure starvation, exposure, and daily bombardments.
Tens of thousands of people endure similar plights in other enclaves besieged by the Serbs.
"The difficulties we have confronted since the beginning of the war have been increasing in the last month, the last couple of weeks in particular," said Jose-Maria Mendiluce, special envoy of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to former Yugoslavia, in a Monitor interview. "We have exhausted our humanitarian arguments. We have exhausted also our negotiation capacity at the humanitarian level."
Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic has brought the Vance-Owen peace process to a halt by refusing to join the Bosnian Muslims and Croats in signing the final part of the plan to divide Bosnia into 10 mostly autonomous, ethnic-based provinces.
But UN officials and Western diplomats privately say they do not believe any of the measures being contemplated by the international community can stop the Bosnian Serbs from overrunning Srebrenica and other Muslim pockets in eastern Bosnia.
"I have the impression that the political and military objectives are the top and only priority that [the Serbs] have," says Mr. Mendiluce, who is concerned that the Bosnian Serbs intend to expel the entire population of Srebrenica. "We are really, really in a situation of severe limitations. How it is going to be resolved, I don't know. We are going to have to take some very, very hard decisions," Mendiluce says.
Cedric Thornbury, the deputy chief of the UN Protection Force in the former Yugoslavia, agrees. "The Bosnian Serb army is moving forward in the area, taking village after village. If there is not a cease-fire ... I think the whole of that pocket will fall in 15 to 20 days," he says.
The Bosnian Serbs agreed March 26 to a cease-fire that was to begin yesterday, but UN officials who brokered that deal expressed doubts about the sincerity of Bosnian Serb leaders.
Mr. Karadzic's own contradictory statements have contributed to that distrust. In a March 21 letter to the UN Security Council, he promised to "freeze all military activities around Srebrenica." But on returning March 26 from New York after the latest round of peace talks, he said: "I think that we have to win a major part of what is ours."
In response to Karadzic's refusal to sign the Vance-Owen map, Western states have begun moving to tighten 10-month-old UN economic and political sanctions to isolate completely the Bosnian Serbs and their chief backers in rump Yugoslavia.
The UN Security Council is also considering enforcement of the no-fly zone over Bosnia and UN officials are threatening to suspend aid deliveries to Serb-held areas of eastern Bosnia.
But most observers here agree that with his forces holding 70 percent of Bosnia, Karadzic and his mentor, President Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia, are impervious to anything but force - the one measure the peace mediators and international community have ruled out.
There are several factors favoring the Serbs.
Russian President Boris Yeltsin's opposition, which tried again yesterday to impeach him, has accused him of betraying their Serbian "brother Slavs" by supporting Western measures against Serbia, a historic ally.
The strength of the anti-Yeltsin camp has given Karadzic and Milosevic reason to believe that Russia will back them.
Serbia and its Bosnian proxies are also aided by the ongoing disputes among the Western allies, with France and Britain opposing measures they believe would endanger their UN military contingents on the ground in Bosnia.
Karadzic apparently also believes that the mediators will eventually have to deal with the Serbs. "Without our signature, there will be nothing," Karadzic said. "I think that things have to be changed to our point of view."