CLOUDS of dust billowed over the Muslim heart of Sarajevo Wednesday as high explosives crashed into the centuries-old warren of tiny carpet and filigree shops, coffee houses, homes, and religious shrines.
"Madness!" exclaimed Muslim Asija Skenderic as she watched the bombardment by Serbian guerrillas manning mortars and howitzers on ridges high above Bosnia-Herzgovina's defenseless capital. "It makes no sense."
The leaders of the former Yugoslav republic and Western diplomats say there is no question that the gunmen of the Serbian Democratic Party (SDP) are engaged in a ruthless drive to partition Europe's newest state.
"It has to do with creating by force the Serbian republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina," says a Western diplomat in Belgrade.
Backed by the political muscle of communist-ruled Serbia and the firepower of the Serb-dominated Yugoslav Army, SDP forces have been pummeling Sarajevo and other towns in a frustrated rejection of international recognition this week of Bosnia-Herzegovina's independence.
Hundreds are believed to have been killed and injured in the emerging civil war pitting Serbian bands and Yugoslav Army troops against republic security forces and a motley collection of paramilitary groups of Muslims, Croats, and loyalist Serbs determined to preserve Bosnia-Herzegovina's territorial integrity.
The turmoil has been complicated by intense battles around the northwestern town of Kupres between the Army and an ultra-nationalist Croatian paramilitary organization seeking control of Croat-populated areas of the central Bosnia region. The communist-led Yugoslav Army, which has an estimated 100,000 troops and 65 percent of its lucrative arms factories in the republic, insists it is trying to preserve peace.
But, as was the case in neighboring war-torn Croatia, there is no doubt that the howitzers, mortars, rocket launchers, and antiaircraft guns possessed by Serbian civilians, renegade police, and military reservists came from the Army's arsenals.
"The Army has been transporting weapons into Serbian enclaves for weeks," said a Muslim officer who resigned in disgust this week. "If the Army was not on the Serbs' side, everything would be resolved quickly. The Army gives them backbone. It is the only backbone they have.
"The Army is trying to hide its real aims and loyalties," he said in an interview granted on the basis of anonymity. "The Army is fighting for its survival ... and Serbia is feeding the Army."
He asserted that virtually all of the Muslim and Croatian officers in the republic have deserted or resigned in the past week.
Assistant Interior Minister Mirsad Srebrenikovic said that many former officers are offering their services to the republic's security forces, the senior commanders of which include Croats and Serbs. On Wednesday, the collective presidency led by Bosnia-Herzegovina's Muslim president, Alija Izetbegovic, took a first step toward forging its own army by ordering all loyal paramilitary units to merge with its security forces.
Mr. Izetbegovic's embattled government has refrained from openly confronting the Army over its support for the anti-independence Serbs, unlike the nationalist regime in neighboring Croatia.
Anxious to avoid the destruction wrought by the Army on Vukovar, Dubrovnik, and other towns in Croatia, Izetbegovic has pleaded with Serbian generals to restrain their guerrilla proxies. But his patience is running out.
"Soon, we shall not be begging the Army, but we shall defend ourselves," Izetbegovic said yesterday as a Serbia-based paramilitary band launched an offensive against the mostly Muslim town of Zvornik.
Bosnia-Herzegovina's 1.9 million Muslims, 750,000 Croats, and many of its 1.4 million Serbs have no desire to live in a rump Yugoslavia ruled by the communist leaders of Serbia and the Yugoslav Army.
At the same time, years of alarmist propaganda have enflamed the bulk of Bosnia-Herzegovina's Serbs, who feel threatened by Islamic fundamentalism and contend they have the right to live in a single state with the other 8.5 million Serbs.
Reacting to recognition earlier this week by the United States and European Community, the Serbian Democratic Party declared an independent Serbian state in 60 percent of Bosnia-Herzegovina that it said might join the "new" Yugoslav federation.