Vote on Arms to Bosnia Could Miss the Mark

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

JUST before dawn on the warm summer morning of June 15, several hundred young Bosnian soldiers were ready to rewrite history.

Massed in trenches a few hundred yards below a rocky, Serb-held outcropping above Sarajevo known as Dbelo Brdo, the Bosnian government soldiers were ready to take strategic high ground that was a crucial first step in liberating the city.

After light mortars - captured from Bosnian Serbs or smuggled into Bosnia from Iran, Pakistan, or Turkey - pounded the Serb position, the soldiers charged up the steep grade, scrambling forward in a scene reminiscent of World War I.

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But glory turned to horror. With each stride forward, cruelly efficient antipersonnel mines tore into them. ''They got caught up in the mine fields,'' says a Zagreb-based senior United Nations military official. ''We believe they took as many as 125 casualties that day.'' It was one of many battles for the strategic high ground near the capital. Within 48 hours, the Bosnian Army lost control of it again.

With the US House voting as early as today on unilaterally lifting the UN arms embargo against the Bosnian government, military officials on the ground here say the troubled June offensive shows that the Bosnian Army still suffers from glaring, long-term handicaps that will take more than a few dozen US-made tanks and antitank missiles to solve.

Western military analysts say variations on the horrific theme at Dbelo Brdo played themselves out around Sarajevo in the following weeks. In an offensive that achieved at best mixed results, the Bosnian Army captured up to 75 square miles around the city, but took up to 1,500 casualties and was far from liberating the city.

Military analysts warn that simply lifting the arms embargo against the Bosnian government without providing extensive training and air cover would be disastrous. It would allow the Bosnian Serbs to wipe out Bosnian government forces before the weapons arrive. The Bosnian Army has twice as many men as the Bosnian Serbs, but almost no tanks and heavy artillery. ''It's not simply a question of weapons,'' says a Bosnia based UN military official. ''You can't build an army overnight.''

The proposal being considered in the US House includes a 12-week delay between the time when the Bosnian government requests a UN withdrawal and when arms are actually delivered. It makes no mention of how the weapons will be delivered or how the Bosnians will be trained to use them.

''The arms aren't going to help the Bosnians for six to eight months after they arrive,'' says a UN official in Bosnia. ''Meanwhile, the Serbs are pounding them.''

The building of the kind of well-armed Bosnian Army - the kind some US officials say will force the Bosnian Serbs into serious peace negotiations - faces another impediment: the only effective arms embargo in the former Yugoslavia.

Croatia, which is nominally allied to the Bosnian government through a US-brokered federation, continues to prevent crucial heavy weapons from entering landlocked Bosnia by land or air, according to UN officials.

The Bosnian Army, thanks to covert arms shipments from Turkey, Iran, and Pakistan, is believed to have all the small arms it needs.

But Croatia, which officials say takes a cut of all weapon shipments it allows into Bosnia, blocks crucial heavy artillery and tank shipments.

''The Croats are letting some arms in,'' says a senior Zagreb-based Western diplomat, ''but I'd like to see more.''

Along with failing to allow the delivery of weapons, promises of tanks and artillery from Croat forces in Bosnia - controlled, supported, and armed by Croatia itself - never materialized during the June offensive. Last March, the US-brokered federation ended a year of bitter fighting between Croats and Muslims in Bosnia. But little progress has been made on the joint military command the agreement called for. ''Croatia views a strong Bosnian Army as a potential future threat,'' says a UN military official. ''That's not likely to change.''

UN officials say the current Croatian Army offensive into central Bosnia has more to do with Croatia's desire to retake territory held by rebel Serbs in Croatia than aiding the Bosnian government. But Croatian officials say they support the federation and are allowing arms into Bosnia.

''Weapons are getting in,'' says a senior Croatian official. ''Anything that's taken off the top is simply part of the [arms-smuggling] business.''

UN officials say that the Bosnian government also has itself to blame for some of its military woes. After a brief period last year of replacing corrupt or incompetent officers, the Bosnian government continues to appoint generals based on political, not military considerations.

Impending Bosnian offensives are being tipped off to the Bosnian Serbs, and the Army's already-limited resupply system is riddled with corruption.

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