SARAJEVO, BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA — AS the international community contemplates carrying out threats of punitive action after the Bosnian Serb rejection of their take-it-or-leave-it peace plan, the Serbs seem intent on showing the five greatest world powers who is boss in the Balkans.
Since rejecting the plan last week, the Serbs have done nothing but taunt, humiliate, and antagonize the United Nations peacekeeping force (UNPROFOR) deployed in the region, boldly defying threats of reprisals repeatedly issued by UN authorities.
The defiance appears to be part of a coordinated effort on the part of the Bosnian Serbs to show fearlessness just days before the international ``contact group'' - the United States, Russia, France, Britain, and Germany - meets in Geneva on July 30. There they will decide on whether or not to take some, all, or none of the options they themselves laid out as punitive steps should the Bosnian Serbs not accept the plan.
``These are not isolated or uncontrolled incidents,'' says UN Sarajevo Commander Andre Soubirou. ``The Bosnian Serbs are trying to maintain a level of fear.''
The options the contact group has placed on the table include the tightening of economic sanctions against Yugoslavia or the imposition of new ones; more vigorously enforcing, or possibly expanding, the existing NATO exclusionary zones imposed around six UN-declared safe areas in Bosnia; or exempting the Bosnian Muslim government from the arms embargo imposed on all of former Yugoslavia.
Although the plan did not deviate much from earlier ones, the contact group expected that these options, coupled with the added incentive of lifting the debilitating sanctions on rump Yugoslavia, would entice the Serbs to accept it.
Additionally, it was the first time that Russia, the US, and Britain all agreed on a proposal. Previous plans had faced objections from various countries, diluting the international community's resolve.
But these changes made no difference to the Serbs. The plan requires the Bosnian Serbs to withdraw from one-third of the territory they now control and does not allow them to fulfill their ultimate war aim - to merge with neighboring Serb-dominated rump Yugoslavia into a ``Greater Serbia.'' The Bosnian Serbs called the plan a humiliation and an insult to Bosnian Serb statehood.
Now, undeterred, they have stepped assaults on the UNPROFOR on various fronts. Yesterday they said they would block off roads in and out of the city of Sarajevo, in effect reimposing the siege on the Bosnian capital. This move is expected to send the price of food and fuel skyrocketing again.
They continue to prohibit the UN from flying helicopters over Bosnian Serb air space, despite numerous protests and condemnations. Last week they closed the humanitarian air lift into Sarajevo by shooting at four planes coming into the city. As a result, US Secretary of Defense William Perry canceled a trip to Sarajevo on the last leg of his tour to the Balkans, rather than test Bosnian Serb resolve.
The Serbs later in the day directly targeted UN troops as they were setting up sniper blockades along a newly opened tram route in downtown Sarajevo.
The Serbs also prohibited the evacuation of 35 wounded from the besieged Muslim enclave of Gorazde by linking the evacuation with the release of all Serb prisoners by the Bosnian government.
``This is unacceptable,'' Claire Grimes, spokeswoman for UNPROFOR in Sarajevo says. ``We will not tolerate any linkage of a purely humanitarian issue with anything else.''
Regarding the issue, Bosnian Serb commander Radko Mladic reportedly told British General Sir Michael Rose, commander of UN troops in Bosnia, that if the Bosnian Serb prisoners were not released by July 30, ``We are going to make your life miserable,'' Ms. Grimes reported.
As if to underscore that point, on Sunday Bosnian Serbs fired an antitank gun 12 times near a UN observation post inside a 12-mile, heavy-weapons exclusionary zone around the besieged Muslim enclave of Gorazde in eastern Bosnia. The act was in clear violation of an ultimatum - which the Serbs had previously adhered to for months until Sunday - vowing to bomb Serb positions with NATO air-power should the zone be violated.
But rather than enforce the ultimatum, Grimes said the UN would send the Bosnian Serbs a ``letter of warning,'' promising to take ``stronger action'' if the anti-aircraft gun is not removed from the zone.
UN and NATO passivity regarding these events comes at a time when the international community should have been standing strong, not cowering weakly, to the Bosnian Serbs, Bosnian government officials and Western diplomats say. Anything less plays directly into Serb hands and bodes ill for the contact group plan that the group itself has deemed the last chance for peace in the Balkans.
``They [the contact group] created their own vicious cycle,'' says Muhamed Sacirbey, Bosnia's ambassador to the UN. `If the Serbs know you will avoid conflict at any cost, how do you convince them you will do anything.''