TUZLA, BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA — BY defying an American request to halt its military operations, the Bosnian government is risking the most potent weapon in its war against rebel Serbs - international sympathy.
The continued push on Serb-held Banja Luka, together with the initial reluctance of Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic to participate in American-sponsored peace talks in New York today, form a new, high-risk strategy for the Bosnian government.
With Croatia and Serbia willing to attend the talks, the Muslim-led Bosnian government risks appearing to be the chief impediment to peace. The increasingly strident Mr. Izetbegovic had claimed the talks would result in a de facto partition of his country and sought further assurances that under any agreement Bosnian-Serb-held regions could not secede from Bosnia in future years.
The Bosnian government's waffling on whether to attend today's talks was an embarrassment for the Clinton administration after it finally had delivered the Serbs to the negotiating table. ''It's part of the ups and downs of shuttle diplomacy,'' said Ginny Terzano, a White House spokeswoman.
The diplomatic and military moves by Izetbegovic are dangerous. If they result in another round of fighting, and Bosnian forces are again routed by the Bosnian Serbs, there is likely to be little Western support for new NATO airstrikes or even a continued presence on the ground by United Nations peacekeepers.
Senior Bosnian officials, clearly encouraged by recent military victories, appear to have set a new goal of taking control of the entire country by military or political means. Only a week after the government agreed to a 51 to 49 percent partition of the country into a Muslim-Croat half and a rebel Serb half, officials appear confident that they can dictate the terms of an agreement.
''There won't be any meeting. We are not satisfied with the progress of the talks in Belgrade between [American envoy Richard] Holbrooke and [Serbian President Slobodan] Milosevic,'' Bosnian Prime Minister Haris Silajdzic said Sunday. ''We have made some requirements which were not met, like for example that secession cannot happen.''
In talks with American officials over the weekend in Belgrade, Mr. Milosevic apparently failed to agree to a Bosnian government proposal that a paragraph be added to Bosnia's Constitution barring any part of the country from seceding. Acceptance of that proposal would be the death knell for Milosevic's and Bosnian Serbs' dreams of a ''Greater Serbia.'' ''We want it explicitly to say that no part of Bosnia-Herzegovina will be able to secede,'' Mr. Silajdzic said. ''Partition is our main concern and main problem.''
The demand is not a new one for the Bosnian government. But the apparent determination to carry it out is. Western diplomats have long tried to persuade the militarily weak Bosnians to give up on the goal of uniting the country, take whatever chunk it can, and let economic forces that link Serb-controlled rural areas to Muslim-controlled population centers slowly create a de facto reunification. But Izetbegovic is apparently banking on the new prowess of the allied Bosnian-Croat forces to either win the
war outright or put enough pressure on the Bosnian Serbs to make them agree to rejoin the country.
In a move clearly designed to play on Bosnian Serb insecurities, Muslim and Croat forces reportedly attacked the strategic Brcko corridor Sunday. This thin strip, three miles wide at one point, is the only link between embattled Serb-held territory in western Bosnia and the Bosnian Serb heartland in the east.
BUT Izetbegovic may be miscalculating. The Bosnian-Croat offensive appears to have stalled around the Serb stronghold of Banja Luka, and Bosnian Serb forces have reportedly retaken the town of Mrkonjic Grad. UN officials say the Bosnian Serbs are moving the heavy weapons that NATO forced them to withdraw from Sarajevo through the Brcko corridor. The fighting in the area may have been instigated by the Serbs to provide cover for the weapons as they move through the area. The weapons could be used either to bolster Serb defense lines around Banja Luka or to launch a counteroffensive.
Bosnian Serb commander Ratko Mladic also has arrived in Banja Luka - after a lightening-quick recovery from surgery that conveniently removed him from the Sarajevo area while heavy weapons were being withdrawn - and may be looking for revenge.
But the Bosnian government appears unfazed by General Mladic's return and by the arrival in the Banja Luka area of about 1,000 paramilitary troops from Serbia under the command of Zeljko Raznjatovic, better known as Arkan.