ZAGREB, CROATIA — THROUGHOUT the Bosnian conflict, the Muslim-led Bosnian government has gone to great pains to cultivate its image as a victim of aggression. But senior government officials warn that their passivity is ending.
A surprise offensive launched this week by the Bosnian government is the latest signal of its increasing willingness to use force to break a worsening diplomatic and military stalemate, observers say. But, the high-risk strategy may backfire.
The offensive, aimed at taking strategic high ground near the central Bosnian towns of Travnik and Tuzla, represents the most serious violation of a cease-fire brokered by former President Jimmy Carter that is set to expire May 1.
In a Monitor interview, Bosnian Prime Minister Haris Silajdzic said Western inaction is giving the Bosnian government little choice but to take matters into its own hands.
''We're not supposed to attack the Serbs, we're not supposed to fight back, and the arms embargo can't be lifted,'' Mr. Silajdzic says. ''They want us to wait, to not make waves.... We won't wait forever, this is our land.''
But observers warn that despite the Bosnian government's threats, their unusual new offensive may indicate that they are in essence trapped between a lack of Western will and Serb military might.
''Whether the [Bosnian government] has the capability to sustain an offensive over a long period is an open question,'' says a senior UN official. ''Obviously ... the [Bosnian Serbs] will pick a time and place to enact retribution of their own.''
In its first days, the Bosnian offensive has achieved mixed results, possibly indicating that government forces are still not strong enough to take back land. While the government has nearly twice as many troops as the Bosnian Serbs, it has few tanks or artillery.
Bosnian Serb forces, following a clear pattern that has evolved during the war, responded to the infantry-led assault by lobbing artillery shells at both towns, according to UN officials. One Serb shell hit a Bosnian Army barracks in Tuzla, killing more than 20 Bosnian soldiers, prompting UN officials to say the offensive had gotten off to a ''disastrous'' start.
UN officials warn that the Bosnians, who may be taking their cue from Croatian President Franjo Tudjman -- who recently successfully bluffed the West into granting him several concessions -- are playing a dangerous game. ''There are serious diplomatic consequences,'' the UN official added. ''The Bosnian government could lose some support from the West.''
But Silajdzic says he fears the nearly three-year-old conflict is entering one of its deepest stalemates. The West is unwilling or unable to force a diplomatic settlement, and neither side is able to win the war militarily.
The relatively successful Carter-brokered cease-fire in Bosnia has been gradually unraveling. Bosnia Serb forces have closed civilian supply roads into Sarajevo known as ''blue routes,'' and taken back three heavy weapons from a UN-controlled storage area. Sniping resumed in the city late last month and has resulted in dozens of civilian casualties.
A series of January visits by diplomats representing the ''contact group'' -- the United States, Britain, France, Russia, and Germany -- failed to get the Bosnian Serbs to accept a peace plan that would divide Bosnia roughly in half.
Continuing Western efforts to get Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic to recognize Bosnia -- further pressuring the Bosnian Serbs to accept the peace deal -- appeared to be failing. ''There seems to have been a catastrophic loss of will on the part of the West to solve this conflict,'' says the senior UN official.
Silajdzic says that the West has clearly decided to contain the crisis, allow a moderate level of fighting to continue, and wait for one side to tire of the war instead of forcing a diplomatic settlement.
He says maintaining the status quo solidifies the Bosnian Serbs' control over the 70 percent of Bosnia they now hold.
''More of the same, that is what the West wants -- which means more misery and death in Bosnia,'' Silajdzic says bitterly.
The Bosnian premier hinted that alienating the West may be a risk worth taking.
Sent as the official Bosnian government representative to the World Summit for Social Development in Copenhagen earlier this month, Silajdzic says he was struck by how severe the post-cold-war diplomatic vacuum had become at the conference.
''There's a prevailing sense of disorientation. There's no authority,'' Silajdzic says.
He says the Bosnian government still hopes the US Congress will lift a UN-sponsored arms embargo and level the military playing field.
''We used to say that in the Balkans, we are caught between two civilizations,'' he says. ''Now, we are caught between two eras.''