ZAGREB, CROATIA — UNITED States Ambassador to Croatia Peter Galbraith says that Serb soldiers from Croatia have joined Bosnian Serbs in the battle in northwest Bosnia, contradicting United Nations reports.
This unprecedented public statement by a senior Western official, made in a Monitor interview, suggests that the UN is trying to play down the Serbs' latest advance, because it is too late for the international community to prevent the fall of the last Muslim enclave in northwest Bosnia.
``The [Croatian Serb] ground troops are crossing into the Bihac pocket,'' Mr. Galbraith said Nov. 21 in the Croatian capital. ``They are playing ... a very significant role with artillery, airstrikes, and ground troops.''
His statement substantiates the Muslim-led Bosnian government's charges of Croatian Serb ground incursions into Bihac.
``This is a coordinated attack against the Army of Bosnia-Herzegovina that is defending the Bihac pocket,'' Galbraith said. ``It is aimed at the defeat of that Army in some form or another and the takeover and/or control of the pocket.''
He declined to discuss the consequences of such a development.
But UN officials and Western diplomatic sources agree that a successful Serb assault would radically alter the dynamics of the Yugoslav crisis.
The fall of the last Muslim stronghold on the Bosnia-Croatia border would remove the sole geographic barrier preventing the Bosnian and Croatian Serbs from realizing their long-held dream of uniting their territories.
Minority Serbs seized control of about one-third of Croatia's territory in 1991 and proclaimed their independence. And Bosnian Serbs captured about 70 percent of Bosnia the following year.
``They are trying to create a geographically compact, ethnically pure western Serb state,'' says a Western official, who predicts that the estimated 170,000 Muslims trapped in the Bihac pocket will eventually be driven out.
The possibility of Bosnian and Croatian Serb unification has already set off alarms within Croatian President Franjo Tudjman's government. Croatia also faces the prospect of a tidal wave of new Muslim refugees from Bihac. It already hosts 150,000 Bosnian Muslim refugees.
For these reasons, UN officials and Western diplomatic sources fear Mr. Tudjman could launch preemptive military strikes against Croatia's Serbs that would plunge Croatia back into all-out war.
A wider war would also create major new problems for Serbia's President Slobodan Milosevic. He has seemingly ended his backing of the Bosnian and Croatian Serbs and is cooperating in international peace efforts in order to win the lifting of UN sanctions imposed on Serbia.
But an escalation in fighting could force Mr. Milosevic to restore the military aid that he apparently began withholding in August from the Bosnian Serbs and stop pressuring the Croatian Serbs to make peace with Zagreb.
MILITARILY, the defeat at Bihac would deal a massive blow to the morale of the Muslim-led Bosnian government, its Army, and their Bosnian Croat allies, who have been greatly buoyed by major gains in recent offensives elsewhere in Bosnia.
More seriously, it would allow the Bosnian Serb army chief, Gen. Ratko Mladic, to redeploy huge numbers of troops for counteroffensives to retake the ground they have lost.
The Bihac pocket is a 694-square-mile, peanut-shaped region marooned between Bosnian Serb-held lands to the east and south and Croatia's Serb-held Krajina region to the west. The main town, Bihac, is one of six UN-designated safe areas.
The enclave has been besieged almost since the war began in Bosnia in 1992. The current fighting erupted a month ago, when the Bosnian Army recaptured 90 square miles of Bosnian Serb territory, which it has since lost.
Galbraith spoke to the Monitor only hours after NATO bombed the Croatian Serb airfield from which three airstrikes were launched against the pocket in the last three weeks.
He declined to say how many Croatian Serb troops had joined the Bosnian Serb counterattack.
Galbraith's comments sharply contrasted with UN reports on the fighting. Senior UN officials say the Croatian Serbs have been providing cross-border artillery and tank fire in support of the Bosnian Serbs. But they say they have no evidence of major Croatian Serb ground forces inside the enclave, only some Serb officers leading Muslim rebels recruited from refugees who fled into Krajina in August when the Bosnian Army crushed an insurrection by Muslim warlord Fikret Abdic.
Bihac town, meanwhile, was reported to have been virtually cut off from the rest of the enclave, with Bosnian Serb artillery on the heights above it able to control all of the access roads.
The UN Security Council has demanded the Croatian Serbs end their involvement in the fighting and lift a blockade that has allowed only 12 UN humanitarian-aid convoys to enter the pocket since June 1.
It has also called on the Croatian Serbs to allow the UN Protection Force to resupply 1,200 Bangladeshi UN troops trapped in the enclave. The Bangladeshis are close to running out of food.
Special UN envoy to former Yugoslavia Yasushi Akashi is to discuss the crisis in Belgrade on Nov. 23 with Milosevic and Croatian Serb leader Milan Martic.
But Galbraith raised doubts about Milosevic's ability to persuade Mr. Martic to heed the UN demands. ``The Krajina Serbs have had one foot in the Milosevic camp and one in the Bosnian Serb camp, and their military successes in this joint operation with the Bosnian Serbs clearly moves them toward the Bosnian Serb camp,'' Galbraith said.