BELGRADE — WITH the Geneva peace talks and possible NATO airstrikes hanging in the balance, Serb forces appeared yesterday to be moving troops and heavy military equipment from Mt. Igman, a strategic peak overlooking Sarajevo, according to UN sources in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
But it remained unclear whether the forces were withdrawing from their positions above the besieged capital, as promised, or only attempting to ease the threat of Western retaliation.
The consensus among diplomats in Belgrade is that the threat of airstrikes has motivated the Bosnian Serbs but that pressure has to be kept up.
"We have seen before that the Bosnian Serbs responded to the threats of outside military intervention - but they did just enough for the threat to go away. This time we must not let that happen," one diplomat says.
The flurry of activity around Sarajevo has acquired an air of urgency. The peace talks in Geneva between the warring Muslim, Croat, and Serb factions have been postponed until the Serbs pull back from Mt. Igman. If they do not, NATO is prepared to launch airstrikes against their positions.
The commander of the UN troops in Bosnia, Belgian Gen. Francis Briquemont, said yesterday that a French battalion on Mt. Igman denied reports suggesting that the Bosnian Serbs were replacing tired troops with fresh reinforcements rather than withdrawing.
But some diplomats and UN officials are publicly concerned that the Bosnian Serbs could be engaged in an elaborate attempt to avert airstrikes.
"It is quite clear that they do not want to give up Mt. Igman, which they so recently took from the Muslims," a diplomat here says. He argues that the Bosnian Serbs must be pressured to relinquish the mountain.
The Serbs had earlier withdrawn from a second, less vital mountain, Mt. Bjelasnica. But they had said they would not hand over Mt. Igman until there were sufficient UN troops on the ground to ensure no Muslim counteroffensive. Diplomats here say that, in making that demand, the Bosnian Serbs have managed not only to retain their gains but also to create a "buffer zone" on the southern approaches to Sarajevo.
THE Bosnian Serb offensive to claim the two mountain tops was not just to choke off a crucial Muslim supply route into Sarajevo. The Serbs also wanted to reinforce their claim on a part of the city. "We would like Sarajevo to be a peaceful city, but a divided city, with a Green Line going through it like in Beirut," explains a Bosnian Serb spokesman.
One additional explanation for the hiccups in the withdrawal from Mt. Igman is that there appears to be a split between what is said in Geneva and what Bosnian Serb military commanders are prepared to do. Observers say there are elements on both sides trying to subvert any kind of accord.
According to military specialists, the Serbs never intended to seize the entire city by force and that even if they did, according to one, "they simply don't have the manpower for the street-to-street struggle that would be necessary." But the Serbs hold several suburbs of Sarajevo in which they accounted for more than one third of the prewar population.
The Muslims, on the other hand, who account for about 50 percent of Sarajevo's 650,000 population, are not prepared to relinquish control over parts of the city.
The fate of Sarajevo, and who eventually controls it, has become the symbolic question of the war. All three sides are exhausted. Sarajevo cannot go through another winter of siege without becoming a human catastrophe of larger proportions than it has so far.
Diplomats here expect that the Bosnian Serbs could be pressed for some additional land concessions to the Muslims. This could produce an agreement at Geneva. But most analysts here say a lasting political settlement of the Bosnian issue is still far away.
Unknown is what sort of a hybrid country composed of three ethnic republics will eventually emerge. Bosnia will have a weak central government and no army. Its natural and industrial wealth would be divided.
Before the war, it had an economy that functioned in an integrated state with resources, raw materials, and energy coming from distant areas. Given the viciousness of the civil war and ravages inflicted on all three communities, it is difficult to see how a partitioned Bosnia could achieve a viable economy.