ZAGREB, CROATIA — ON the surface, it is a glorious image for supporters of the Muslim-led Bosnian government. In only 48 hours, well-equipped Croatian soldiers, backed by dozens of tanks and heavy artillery, take hundreds of square miles of Serb territory and send thousands of Croatian Serb soldiers fleeing in a rout.
Serb forces, when finally faced with a well-equipped opponent, have been shown to be paper tigers, the Bosnian government says. Once an arms embargo against the Bosnian government is lifted and its poorly equipped Army receives tanks and howitzers, dreaded Bosnian Serb commander Ratko Mladic will finally eat crow.
But UN officials warn the success of the Croatian Army this weekend could mean disaster for the struggling Bosnian Army. As thousands of Croatian Serb civilians flee into neighboring Bosnia, thousands of Croatian Serb soldiers flee with them.
Bigger Serb Army?
The Bosnian Serb army, short on manpower, may now be getting the weapon it needs most - men. As many as 20,000 Croatian Serb troops may soon join the Bosnian Serb army, and Croatian Serb fighter jets, long-range rockets, and tanks have apparently already crossed into Bosnia. "The military assessment is that the Frogs [long-range missiles] are in Western Bosnia," says a UN official."The planes are in [Bosnian Serb-held] Banja Luka," he adds.
Apparently receiving clear signals from Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic that he would not be coming to their aid, Croatian Serb leaders even abandoned their self-declared capital of Knin Friday night without a fight. Most troops appear to have left the town well before two advancing Croat tank columns entered it at noon on Saturday.
But Croatian Serb soldiers, after managing to avoid a fight in Croatia, may soon find themselves on the front lines in Bosnia.
Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic declared nationwide martial law for the first time in the war last month, and military authorities have been rounding up all men of military age. Fleeing Croatian Serb soldiers will probably be conscripted in the Bosnian Serb army.
UN military officials say that the Muslim-led Bosnian Army will still outnumber Serb forces by nearly 2 to 1, but even if a UN arms embargo against the Muslims is lifted, it will take at least six months for the weapons to arrive.
Six months is more than enough time, UN officials worry, for the Bosnian Serbs - who realize that the Bosnian Army is slowly getting stronger - to carry out a final summer military campaign targeting Sarajevo that could put them in position to dictate the terms of winter peace talks.
But all is not well with the Bosnian Serb leadership. On Saturday, Mr. Karadzic announced he was taking full command of the Bosnian Serb military forces himself, effectively demoting General Mladic. The military leader, reportedly close to Serbia's President Milosevic, says Karadzic's order is "illegal." Both Mladic and Karadzic have been indicted by the international war crimes tribunal in The Hague for crimes against humanity.
Croatia is expected to do little to help the Bosnian Army. Despite being nominally allied in a US-brokered federation, the Croatian Army has not allowed covert tank and heavy artillery shipments to enter Bosnia. Promised joint campaigns involving Muslim infantry backed by Croat tanks and artillery also have not materialized.
Croatian officials refuse to say whether the more than 10,000 Croatian Army troops who crossed into Bosnia will stay there. The Bosnian Army Fifth Corps, based in Bihac, is now no longer surrounded, but officials don't expect that to be enough to shift the tactical balance in the Bosnian government's favor.