ZAGREB, CROATIA — A NEW, American-led vow to use "substantial and decisive" airstrikes to deter Serb attacks on United Nations "safe areas" is being laughed off by players on many sides, from Bosnian Serbs themselves to Muslim Malaysia.
Recent events indicate that yet another Western "ultimatum" has done little to stabilize the situation in the drawn-out war in Bosnia: Serb forces killed two French soldiers and pressed their attack on two more UN safe areas this weekend.
Meanwhile, Croatia is threatening to unleash the widest fighting in the area since the war in the former Yugoslavia began. And Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has offered to beat the United States Congress to the punch and ignore a UN arms embargo against the outgunned, Muslim-led Bosnian government.
Days after a much-hyped "historic meeting" of top Western officials in London - held as a "turning point" in the UN mission - events inside and outside of Bosnia appear to be spiraling out of control. Western officials say a lack of Western resolve is making a UN pullout, requiring as many as 25,000 US troops, increasingly likely.
A Senate vote on a proposal by Senate majority leader Bob Dole (R) of Kansas to lift the arms embargo on Bosnia is set for Tuesday. Bosnian, Croatian, and Western sentiment that the conflict can only be solved militarily seems to be rising. "The UN is doing absolutely [nothing] for them," says a Western official in Zagreb. "I'm not surprised they are tired of waiting." The official referred to the announcement Saturday by well-armed Croatia that it would send "urgent military assistance" to besieged Muslim forces in the safe area of Bihac. If the Croatian Army moves to defend Bihac, UN forces would be under pressure in the fighting to take casualties or pull out.
"The Croats are definitely massing troops," says the UN official. The presidents, vice presidents, and defense chiefs of Bosnia and Croatia met in the Croatian coastal city of Split, apparently to plot military strategy. "Saturday's meeting was unprecedented," the official said.
Serb forces are reported to have advanced three miles into the Bihac enclave on a 10-mile-wide front. The Bihac pocket has more than 200,000 Muslim civilians.
Western officials say a Croat offensive could come within days. The Serb attack on Bihac may be the excuse increasingly militant Croatian officials have been waiting for to take back the 25 percent of Croatia held by Croatian Serbs.
In Bosnia, the Western threat of airstrikes appears to have done little to intimidate Bosnian Serb forces. Bosnian Serb military commander Ratko Mladic scoffed at the Western ultimatum. He predicted in an interview in Serb media that the UN enclaves of Gorazde and Zepa would fall "by autumn."
After initial Serb reports that Zepa, a city of 10,000 to 16,000, had fallen, its mayor reported near constant shelling Saturday but said the enclave's lines are holding. Some Bosnian Serb forces are also reportedly moving toward Gorazde. "There's no doubt they're going to try for Zepa and Gorazde," says Paul Beaver, editor of Jane's Balkan Sentinel in London. "It's anyone's guess what will happen. The situation is so fluid."
Reports of rape, torture, and mass executions continued this weekend after Bosnian Serbs took the UN safe area of Srebrenica, a town of 30,000 people, on July 11. Civilians in neighboring Serbia told of mass executions of some of the 4,000 Muslim men said to be in Bosnian Serb custody nearby.
Western officials say wider airstrikes may be enough to stop future Srebrenicas. But in the past, following air strikes, Bosnian Serbs have taken hundreds of peacekeepers as hostages and used them as human shields. Fear of casualties led the West to back off on future airstrikes.
But 1,700 British and French troops and heavy artillery from the UN's Rapid Reaction Force were sent to Sarajevo Sunday following the death of the two French soldiers in a show of new "robust" rules of engagement that the UN is vowing to use in Bosnia. The scale of the air campaign as discussed by US officials could also severely reduce the Bosnian Serbs' overwhelming superiority in tanks.
Airstrikes "will work only if they are substantial and hit very important targets,'' Jane's analyst Beaver said. "I hope they'll be sufficient, but I'm not sure."
Even after the conference, differences between the US, Britain, and France appeared to exist. US-British pressure apparently forced French officials to back down on their demand that 1,000 French troops be sent to Gorazde and that the UN-secured land route over Sarajevo's Mt. Igman be opened.
American officials said an attack on any safe area could prompt a US bombing campaign against Serb antiaircraft missiles, tanks, and artillery that could not be stopped by UN officials as airstrikes have been in the past. But British officials say only an attack on Gorazde could trigger the campaign and are reportedly nervous that attempts by relatively safe US pilots to "flatten" the Bosnian Serb "capital" of Pale will result in retaliation against British peacekeepers on the ground.
Western officials predict the air strikes will do little to slow the Bosnian Serbs, who appear to have decided to launch an all-out offensive against the Bosnian Army.