SARAJEVO, BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA — WHEN the Bosnian Serbs began an advance into a second United Nations "safe area" this weekend, UN officials in Sarajevo conceded that they could do nothing to stop the fall of another Muslim enclave.
The 15,000 people crammed into eastern Bosnian town of Zepa were expected to shortly become refugees, prisoners of war, or be killed.
Meanwhile, French, British, and United States military chiefs met yesterday to come up with a strategy to end the mounting chaos on Bosnia. One possible strategy involves reinforcing the threatened safe area of Gorazde with French troops, possibly using US helicopters.
Yesterday, Bosnian Serb infantry, backed by tanks, advanced within a few hundred years of Zepa's center. Last week, Srebrenica was overrun by 1,500 Bosnian Serb troops who captured or killed thousands of that enclave's men and sent the women and children running for their lives.
The 450 Dutch troops deployed in Srebrenica to protect the enclave could do little in the face of the advancing Serbs.
The Bosnian Army has thus decided to relieve the UN of its duties. It is well aware that the UN has deemed the fall of Zepa, which has only 79 Ukrainian peacekeepers, a foregone conclusion, and that the UN also seemed unwilling and unable to protect the other safe areas.
Bosnian government troops surrounded UN bases and observation posts in Zepa and in the likely next Serb target, Gorazde, demanded the UN peacekeepers turn over their weapons. "We have the example of Srebrenica. This time we certainly aren't going to make the mistake of relying on the UN," said a former Bosnian military intelligence officer.
In Zepa, 70 Bosnian Army soldiers surrounded the Ukrainian peacekeepers at their base, and mined the entrance.
The Ukrainians at first refused to turn in their arms, but Bosnian radio reported that the Ukrainians eventually complied and turned in all their weapons.
The UN confirmed that three observation posts had been overrun and that peacekeepers' weapons were taken but could not confirm the entire unit was disarmed. In Gorazde, the Bosnian Army is using the same tactics. Soldiers surrounded the Ukrainian peacekeepers there, and fired machine guns and grenades into the base on Saturday morning. Two buildings in the compound caught fire and the Ukrainians were forced into an underground shelter.
Government soldiers then snuck into the base and stole three armored personnel carriers, a reconnaissance vehicle, two rifles, and 2,000 rounds of ammunition. They attempted to do the same to the British base in Gorazde, but have not succeeded. "They know the UN won't protect them so they are trying to take the weapons and do it themselves," a UN official said in Sarajevo.
As the standoff continued, Bosnian officials and people on the streets of Sarajevo insisted the fall of Zepa would not come so easily. Zepa, an enclave of 15,000 people that is three miles from Srebrenica, is known for being tough. During World War II, the people of Zepa are said to have put up a heroic resistance against Nazi forces.
Zepa is also surrounded by mountains that protecting it from Bosnian Serb tanks. Government officials in Sarajevo said they believe that Zepa is more defendable than Srebrenica because there is a larger Bosnian military presence there. It also has received an influx of 1,000 soldiers who fled from Srebrenica earlier in the week.
"The fighters in Zepa will not sit and wait for the Serbs to come kill them, like they did in Srebrenica," said a Bosnian government source. "If they are going to die, they won't wait for the Serbs to kill them. They will take to the hills and die fighting."
It is unclear whether they are based on false hopes or sound judgement. UN spokesmen in Sarajevo agree that Zepa poses more of a challenge than Srebrenica, but say its fall is inevitable. "Zepa is a pretty tough place, but they are unarmed. What are they going to defend themselves with, sticks?" asked one UN official.
Publicly, the UN condemned the Bosnian Army tactics.
"It is not understandable for an internationally recognized army to take weapons from the UN," said UN spokesman Alexander Ivanko. But privately, some UN officials gave a wink and a nod when they heard the news.