BIHAC, BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA — NATO airstrikes?'' asks Alma with a laugh. The former university professor in the Bihac pocket - a Muslim enclave in northwest Bosnia-Herzegovina completely surrounded by Serbs - adds: ``People don't even think about it here. We know they [the United Nations] won't protect Bihac, just like they didn't protect Gorazde.''
Under an April 22 NATO ultimatum, Serbs were to withdraw from Bihac as they were from Gorazde and four other cities declared ``safe areas'' by the UN a year ago. But wary of airstrikes and despite severe criticism for not following through on threats to Bosnian Serbs elsewhere in Bosnia, the UN has avoided the issue.
After overrunning two thirds of Gorazde in eastern Bosnia (leaving 700 dead and 2,000 wounded), Bosnian Serbs agreed under the NATO ultimatum to pull back from the city center and other UN safe zones. Thus, Bihac and other safe areas came under the protection of possible NATO airstrikes and heavy- weapons exclusion zones.
Since then, Bosnian Serbs have continued to lob an average of 40 shells into the Bihac pocket daily. And the shelling of Bihac by renegade Muslim forces continues. No NATO exclusion zone has been drawn, and no NATO airstrikes have been called.
``The question of territorial exclusion zones is dormant around non-Gorazde safe areas now...,'' one UN official says. ``The common belief is why tackle the tough questions when they can be dodged? Until pictures appear on CNN, it's unlikely anything will be done here.''
Yesterday, three heavy-caliber shells hit the Muslim-held city of Tuzla, another UN-designated safe haven, a day after Muslim forces fired mortar bombs at the Bosnian Serb town of Brcko, UN observers say.
But the shelling of Bihac by Bosnian Serbs has dropped by half since the ultimatum, UN officials say, the situation in Bihac is a relative success.
``There is a lot less shelling than there used to be here,'' says Emmanuel Gaulin, deputy commander of the 1,300 French troops in Bihac.
But ``it's very frustrating that we can't answer back with the NATO air power that we say we have at our disposal,'' he adds.
UN reluctance to strike Bosnian Serb positions was underscored last March when Bosnian Serbs targeted the French base in Bihac with three direct hits in a matter of minutes. The French requested NATO close air support, but UN special envoy to the former Yugoslavia Yashushi Akashi refused to authorize it.
The French asked for help when they came under attack again four days later, but the request was not granted until four hours later. By then, the Serbs had already moved the offending tank. An official statement by the UN cited bad weather as the main reason for the delay, but angry French troops dispute the claim. ``I can tell you that the weather was crystal clear that day,'' one French officer says.
The complex internal situation within the Bihac pocket itself is another reason the UN officials say the issue has been avoided. What is known as the Bihac pocket incorporates three cities and is the only area in the republic where Bosnian Muslims are fighting each other.
If a 12.5-mile exclusion zone were enforced around the city of Bihac, it would exclude nearly two thirds of the pocket, which stretches 37 miles from north to south. It would also then free up Bosnian government troops in the south to concentrate more intently on renegade Muslim forces in the north. Serbs, anxious to capitalize on a weakened Bihac pocket could potentially get more involved as well.
``We have been screaming about the anomalies of this NATO exclusion zone for a long time now,'' one UN official says. ``What happens if [renegade Muslim leader Fikret] Abdic comes south with Krajina Serbs or if [Bosnian government troops] move north?
``No one has thoroughly thought through the military ramifications,'' the official continues. ``If you throw a protective ring around Bihac, it will be tragically flawed from both sides. An exclusion zone is already tough enough to implement.''
Meanwhile, the bottom line the UN had drawn with the Gorazde debacle gets redrawn lower with each passing day in Bihac as well as in other parts of Bosnia in the name of compromise.
Mr. Akashi last week cut a deal with Bosnian Serbs and allowed six Serb tanks to move through the Sarajevo exclusion zone and reinforce Serb positions south of the Bosnian capital. And about 100 Bosnian Serb troops disguised as police remain in the exclusion zone around Gorazde, along with antiaircraft guns and other weapons that were to be withdrawn under the NATO ultimatum.
Although UN spokesman Eric Chaperon called the situation ``totally unacceptable,'' he said no NATO airstrikes would be called in for the violations. Instead, he said, the UN would ``continue to resolve these situations by negotiations.''
Foreign ministers of the United States, Russia, and five European Union states meet in Geneva Friday to try to relaunch the faltering peace process.