A Reversal of Fortune: Bosnian Serbs as Victims

POIGNANT images of hospital rooms damaged by shelling, houses leveled by bombs, and Bosnian Serb women begging that tanks stay near Sarajevo to protect them are flashing across American television screens - and Western officials are wincing.

For the first time in more than three years of the Balkans conflict, the Bosnian Serbs are making headway on one of the few fronts where they have been unsuccessful - trying to gain sympathy by using the Western media.

Since the launch of NATO airstrikes on Aug. 30, Bosnian Serb authorities have maintained a large, but tightly controlled press pool in Pale, their self-declared capital. Dozens of camera crews and reporters that have been rarely allowed on Bosnian Serb territory are being led to site after site of damage.

UN officials say the Bosnian Serbs are doing an effective job of portraying themselves as victims of a NATO-UN behemoth.

Successful Bosnian Serb public relations efforts and Gen. Ratko Mladic's refusal to move heavy weapons he says must stay near Sarajevo to protect Serb-held suburbs are slowly eroding Western resolve, according to UN officials. ''The Serbs are doing a very good job at mounting a propaganda campaign that they have to protect their people,'' says a UN official. ''This bombing campaign might just run out of steam.''

The stakes are enormous. Media coverage has had a greater influence in Bosnia than in any other conflict in history, according to UN officials. At times, media portrayals of what is occurring in Bosnia have prompted massive intervention by the West.

Since the war began, the Muslim-led Bosnian government has been careful to allow free access to the sites of shelling attacks. Pictures of 38 people killed in an Aug. 28 mortar attack on a Sarajevo market, like television images of past massacres, played a crucial role in galvanizing Western resolve to launch the ongoing and pivotal NATO bombing campaign.

If it succeeds, the NATO campaign will bring the Bosnian Serbs to the bargaining table. If it fails, their position will be unassailable, and a UN pullout assisted by thousands of American ground troops probable.

Images of Serb victims and severe damage are taking a toll, UN officials warn. Bosnian Serb television reported heavy damage occurred in the northern town of Banja Luka resulting from the NATO-launched Tomahawk missiles on Sept. 10. They reported that five of the 13 missiles hit communications towers in the hills north and northwest of Banja Luka.

Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic called use of the missiles an ''unprovoked and barbaric action'' in an open letter to President Clinton, Russian President Boris Yeltsin, and British Prime Minister John Major.

''The entire peace process could be wrecked,'' he wrote. ''It is clear that the most powerful military alliance on earth is openly taking the side of enemies, who have already begun to exploit the military openings.''

On Sept. 8, shells from the UN's new Rapid Reaction Force landed just outside a hospital in the Serb-held Sarajevo suburb of Blazuj and killed 10 civilians, according to Bosnian Serb officials.

Bosnian Serb and Western TV showed several hospital rooms with blown-out windows and pools of blood on the floor. A destroyed car in the hospital parking lot was also shown.

UN officials say a shoulder-launched surface-to-air missile was fired by a Bosnian Serb soldier about 2,500 feet from the hospital. The Rapid Reaction Force fired 39 shells back at the position a half hour later.

At the same time, reports of long columns of Bosnian Serb civilians fleeing the Bosnian Serb-held village of Foca into neighboring Montenegro are appearing. Refugees said NATO bombs, apparently intended to hit a nearby bridge, hit several homes.

''There is some talk among the European capitals of ending this,'' the UN official said Saturday. ''The will is evaporating.''

France and Italy have balked at the widening bombing campaign. And Russia, a traditional supporter of the Serbs, says NATO has overstepped the UN mandate in the former Yugoslavia and has requested a UN Security Council meeting to discuss the issue. ''This thing can get out of hand. We think that a way must be found to stop this escalation as quickly as possible,'' Russia's envoy to NATO in Brussels, Vitaly Churkin, told reporters

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