SARAJEVO, BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA — THE chess game - not the blitzkrieg offensive - to lift the siege of Sarajevo has begun.
After three years of war, a cautious Bosnian Army has launched a campaign featuring new tactics that may decide the conflict - but in a matter of weeks, not days. On as many as 15 different fronts, the Army has made headway since Friday with infantry thrusts designed to stretch thinly manned Bosnian Serb forces and surround Serb strongholds instead of overrun them.
But with Serb forces reportedly massing, it is unclear whether the latest mainly Muslim government offensive will wilt in the face of Serb counterattacks, or if the Bosnian Army has finally found a tactical Achilles' heel that could create the first surrounded Serb enclave of the lopsided war.
The offensive is the clearest signal yet that the Bosnian government, frustrated with United Nations efforts to get the first food convoys in over three weeks into the besieged city, is taking matters into its own hands. But it is is not clear if the Bosnian Army, while steadily rearming its troops with weapons from Iran and money from Islamic countries, is strong enough to break the siege.
Government takes supply lines
UN officials say the offensive is the most sophisticated launched by the Army. Respecting a more than 3-to-1 Serb advantage in tanks and artillery, government forces are avoiding head-on conflicts with Serb forces and instead taking control of supply routes that tens of thousands of civilians in Serb-held suburbs of Sarajevo depend on. "We feel it's a smart plan, and they're playing to their strengths," says a UN official. "It's a Balkan strategy of cutting off enclaves instead of taking population centers. "
Instead of rushing forward to exploit gains made when the offensive was launched Friday morning, government forces appeared to be digging in and consolidating their gains on Saturday and Sunday. The slow down could mean the offensive is stalling in the face of heavy Serb resistance or the Bosnians are suffering from resupply problems.
In an ongoing propaganda war, Serb officials claim the government is suffering heavy losses. And Serb authorities have declared a "state of war" in the Sarajevo area, which allows them to draft all men over 18 into the army.
For the first time in the war, the Bosnian Army fired two rocket-propelled grenades into the Serb stronghold of Pale Saturday, when the daughter of Serb leader Radovan Karadzic was getting married. Yesterday, nine Bosnian civilians were killed and 10 wounded when a Serb shell hit them as they waited to collect drinking water.
UN officials say that a military conflict that has frequently resembled World War I may be changing. Bosnian forces could be trying to avoid the mistake they have made in the past - rushing forward after making initial gains and having waves of infantry cut to pieces by waiting Serb artillery. "That's what the Bosnian Serbs want - a large, moving target that is not entrenched so their artillery can hit them," says the UN official. "In Bihac and other failed [Muslim] offensives, that's what happened."
Sides clash over high ground
South of Sarajevo, the Bosnian Army says it took control of a road that links 10,000 to 20,000 civilians in the Serb- held suburbs of Grbavica and Lukavica to the Serb stronghold of Pale Friday. The Army says it withdrew from the road Saturday after blowing it up in two places, but UN officials say they may have been driven back by Serbs.
Whatever occurred, the government remains in control of strategic high ground, known as Dbelo Brdo, which allows them to fire down on the road, rendering it unusable. Bosnian officials say taking the road was a feint to make the Serbs throw reinforcements into that area, while another thrust was made 10 miles to the south to cut the only other supply route into the potential enclave.
In thrusts north of Sarajevo, a supply route running to the Serb-held town of Ilijas has been cut, and the only other remaining route to the city appears to be the target of another Bosnian thrust.
"They're attacking in steep hills and forested areas where their lack of [heavy] weapons isn't a problem," says the UN official. "The real test is whether they can hold what they've gained."
But where or if a main thrust to liberate the city will occur is unclear.
In a sign of continuing caution, Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic in a Saturday radio interview backed away from comments made Thursday that the Army would break or somehow relieve the encircled city. He said the siege would be lifted "now or later, depending on how the situation develops." But expectations among Sarajevo's 300,000 beleaguered residents have clearly been raised by the offensive, and President Izetbegovic may be forced to press on with a larger, riskier military push.
"This [pause] is probably a tactical move," says Faruk Vodopic, pushing a wheelbarrow of water. "The Army has overestimated its strength in the past, but they have the weapons now. The siege will be broken within two weeks."