THE HAGUE — INVESTIGATORS from The International War Crimes Tribunal want to exhume mass graves around the fallen UN ''safe area'' of Srebrenica within the next few weeks. But the new Bosnia peace accord does not guarantee the investigators the protection they may need to make the potentially dangerous trip.
Investigators say exhumation of the graves, which American intelligence officials estimate hold up to 2,700 bodies of Muslim civilians, is crucial to finding out what happened after the fall of Srebrenica and to successfully prosecuting whoever is responsible for any massacres. Because Bosnian Serb officials claim the graves are filled with Muslim soldiers killed in combat, investigators say forensic examinations are needed to prove who the men were and how they died.
''We'd give our eyeteeth to get in there,'' says one Tribunal investigator. ''It's crucial to get in there now. I expect they will all [the grave sites] be tampered with.''
Under the Bosnia peace agreement to be signed in Paris today, war-crimes investigators will technically have access to all parts of Serb-held territory. But the US-led NATO Implementation Force is not required to provide armed protection for war-crimes investigators, human rights groups, or a new international police force.
Critics warn that the lack of NATO military backing means war-crimes investigators and human rights watchdogs will remain in essence toothless and will only be able to investigate war crimes and human rights abuses if Bosnian Serbs, Muslims, or Croats let them.
US diplomats, fearful of NATO troops being drawn into nonmilitary missions, carefully worded the peace agreement so that NATO troops are not required to protect Tribunal investigators and human rights monitors.
Prosecutors to push
But tribunal officials are vowing to pursue the issue. They will hold meetings with senior NATO officials immediately after the peace treaty signing, they said, and will request heavily armed escorts for trips into Serb territory.
''We are going to take advantage of every opportunity offered by the agreement,'' Tribunal spokesman Christian Chartier says in an interview. ''One of the targets will be the Srebrenica mass graves.''
But White House officials warn that American troops are not required to escort investigators into potentially hostile Bosnian Serb territory. ''That is not formally laid out as a responsibility of [US troops],'' a senior White House official said in an interview. ''Providing an escort will be at the discretion of ground commanders.''
Investigators say they are determined to gain access to mass graves around Srebrenica, which fell to the Bosnian Serbs in July. The Bosnian Serbs have refused Tribunal investigators access to their territory and deny that any massacres took place.
But visits to four of the six sites earlier this year by the Monitor yielded evidence of systematic executions of civilians at each one. Nine credible survivors of mass executions, six of whom say Bosnian Serb commander Gen. Ratko Mladic was at the sites of the executions an hour before the shooting began, have also been found.
UN says don't 'sit back'
UN officials say the American reluctance to offer the troops is the latest indication that the 60,000 troops of the NATO Implementation Force (IFOR) may not fully implement all aspects of the Bosnia peace agreement. UN officials warn that failing to fully carry out the agreement could lead to NATO's authority in Bosnia being slowly undermined - just as the UN's was.
NATO is ''eager to sit back in their bases,'' says a senior Zagreb-based UN official. ''But we've been trying to explain to them that situations are going to arise where you just can't do that.''
US officials, leery of American casualties, have suggested that the Netherlands supply troops for a trip to the graves. The small contingent of Dutch peacekeepers stationed in Srebrenica when it fell on July 11 has been accused of doing little to protect Muslim civilians, prompting soul-searching and political controversy in a generally liberal Dutch society.
Dutch officials say they have received no formal requests from the Tribunal, but observers doubt the Dutch government would open itself up to another potential humiliation at the hands of the Bosnian Serbs.
War crimes investigators say an exhumation could be carried out in a matter of days and be relatively safe. Bodies could be quickly removed from the site and transported to Bosnian-government-held territory where lengthy forensic examinations could be carried out.
Serb resistance unlikely
Investigators doubt that the Bosnian Serbs, already beset by political disarray, would resist an American or Dutch military contingent. President Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia, the most powerful Serb politician, has promised access to the sites, and his authority appears to be increasingly unchallenged in Bosnian Serb territory.
UN officials warn that now is the time for NATO to establish its authority over all sides in the Bosnian conflict. While the NATO forces have been given near-colonial powers in Bosnia by the peace agreement, their political backers appear loath to risk the lives of NATO troops.
UN officials say that if in the next few weeks the United States, Great Britain, and France show the same fear of casualties that hampered the UN mission in the former Yugoslavia, IFOR may simply be weak-kneed peacekeeping with a new name.
''The international community is simply setting itself up so that if fighting breaks out after we leave, we can say 'we did all we could, the barbarians won't stop fighting,' '' says the UN official.
''The entire problem is that NATO is coming in here to get out,'' the official says.