SARAJEVO, BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA — BY releasing all but 14 of the UN hostages, the Bosnian Serbs may have opened the door to the bloodiest battle of the three-year-old war in Bosnia.
United Nations officials report that up to 20,000 Bosnian government troops have massed just north of Sarajevo and may be preparing for an offensive to break the 38-month Bosnian Serb siege of the city.
But Western diplomats are divided over whether an attack is imminent. Some say it could come within days, while others say it isn't likely.
Bosnian government officials are denying the reports, but rumors of an attack are running rife in the city. Western officials have long warned that an attempt to break the siege could be disastrous for the outgunned Bosnian Army, and could prompt a US troop-led withdrawal of UN peacekeepers.
An official with the Bosnian Army's First Corps, based in the surrounded capital, denies they have plans to liberate the city.
"If Bosnia-Herzegovina had an opportunity to mass that amount of troops in one place," the official says, "then the problem of the siege would have been over by now."
The official dismisses the reports as Serb propaganda, but warns that intense fighting is imminent because Serb forces are massing for an attack on the city. Two Bosnian Serb corps, with a total of 12,000 men, and a 900-strong elite unit has moved into the area, he says.
"The concentration of [Serb] forces around Sarajevo is increasing immensely," the official adds. "Their two strongest corps are here."
Whether the Bosnian government is gathering its troops to liberate the city, to tie down Serb forces, or to simply pressure the UN to act boldly before the war spins out of control is unclear. But both sides appear to be mounting major propaganda efforts, increasing tensions, and blaming the other side for any renewed fighting.
Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic has promised to break Sarajevo's siege by Nov. 28, and statements that the city cannot make it through a fourth winter under siege are the Sarajevans' new mantra.
Bosnian Serb sources in their headquarters in Pale told Reuters they were more concerned about the increasing strength of the government Army than any threat from NATO or the reinforced UN peacekeeping mission. "They [the Bosnian Army] have been arming themselves steadily," said one Serb source. "They are much stronger than they were before."
UN officials warn that the international community's inability to come up with a clear policy in the conflict and continuing Serb intransigence could spark more fighting.
After promising access last week, the Bosnian Serbs failed to grant permission Tuesday for the first UN aid convoy to enter Sarajevo in three weeks.
UN warehouses in the city are empty for the first time since 1992, and the opening of a UN-secured route into the city has been ruled out by UN commanders for now.
"I think not having a policy is drawing both sides closer to war," warns a UN official. "You're not giving the Bosnians any signals to not launch an offensive."
A vote formally creating the roughly 10,000-troop Rapid Reaction Force to bolster UN peacekeepers is expected by the Security Council this week. UN officials warn that the force will be used if the Serbs are still blocking aid routes at the end of the month.
The release of most of the remaining hostages may also open the door for something European leaders and UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali have been calling for - another diplomatic initiative.
"I think they will try and get something together to coincide with more reinforcements coming here," says a UN official. "I think they want to revitalize the political process."
UN officials in Sarajevo expect the European Union's new mediator in the conflict, former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt, to try and begin a new round of diplomacy between the Bosnian Serbs and the Muslim-led Bosnian government.
French President Jacques Chirac has said Mr. Bildt should also represent the five-nation "contact group" - Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and the United States. The Bosnian government has accepted the contact-group peace plan that would give them 51 percent of the country and the Serbs the remainder, but the Bosnian Serbs, who have captured about 70 percent of the country, have rejected it.
UN officials suspect that the once "take it or leave it" contact-group plan could be dropped in new negotiations.
"There are many people criticizing the contact-group plan," says a UN official, "as an obstacle to peace rather than an aid to it."
Few Sarajevans seem to even notice the hostages release. Conversations instead focus on the impending liberation of the city and betrayal of the West.
"The whole world has been standing at its feet since 300 UN officers were hostages, but we have an entire country that has been held hostage for three years," says Esad Talkjanovic, a Sarajevo dentist. "Aren't Americans ashamed that they are more concerned about the death of polar bears and other animals than the death of children? After all this disappointment with the international community, we can only rely on ourselves."