AS Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic talks peace at the United Nations, his forces are attempting to drive the last Muslims from what was for more than a century Bosnia-Herzegovina's mostly Muslim northeastern flank.
Not even the presence of the UN commander for Bosnia, French Gen. Philippe Morillon, in the besieged enclave of Srebrenica and the attention he has focused on the plight of its 60,000 war-weary people have deterred the Bosnian Serbs.
UN officials reported yesterday that during the preceding 24 hours, Mr. Karadzic's forces had advanced closer to the town, overrunning Muslim villages nestled in the mountains along the Drina River border between Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia.
"The noose around Srebrenica has been tightened considerably," a UN official said. "There has been a big Serbian advance."
The fall of Srebrenica would be the final blow of a Serbian offensive launched last month to complete the "ethnic cleansing" of eastern Bosnia that began at the start of the war almost a year ago.
Under the pretext of avenging a purported massacre of Serbian soldiers, Karadzic's forces took aim at the last Muslim pockets, first overrunning the village of Cerska. Early this week, they conquered nearby Konjevic Polje.
The UN Security Council confirmed that during the operation, Serb commanders defied the UN "no fly" zone over Bosnia, sending aircraft on bombing raids against Muslim positions.
Refugees from Cerska and Konjevic Polje, including women, children, and the wounded, fled to Srebrenica through snow-bound mountains.
"People were able to reach Srebrenica. But they have now reached the end of the line," says Laurens Jolles, a UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) official who visited Srebrenica last week. "There is nowhere else for them to go."
General Morillon, fearing huge numbers of civilian deaths, established his headquarters in Srebrenica last weekend in a bid to deter an inevitable Serbian attack that many observers anticipate.
The Bosnian Serbs' intention to complete the onslaught has been underscored by their refusal to allow through a UN convoy carrying 140 metric tons of food and medicine destined for the town.
Bosnia's Ambassador to the UN Muhamed Sacirbey said yesterday Serb bombers had conducted a raid on the outskirts of Srebernica late Wednesday. Land access needed
Nightly airdrops of relief supplies from the United States have been helpful, UN officials say, but mass starvation in Srebrenica can only be averted by land convoys.
"The situation in Srebrenica is one that is really nearing starvation," Mr. Jolles said. "It is very desperate. People have begun killing each other for food."
Western diplomats and UN officials placed much of the blame for the Bosnian Serb's advances on the consistent reluctance or refusal of the international community to take firm steps to halt the Bosnian Serb offensive.
"The Serbs have figured out that they can get away with murder," one Western diplomat says.
Milos Vasic, the military affairs writer for Belgrade's Vreme magazine, argues, "The Bosnian Serbs know they can go on with impunity. So why not cleanse more territory while they can?"
"The international community has fostered this behavior by its inability to make difficult decisions," a Western diplomat says. A fait accompli
Analysts say Karadzic and his main patron, Serb President Slobodan Milosevic, want to complete the conquest of northeastern Bosnia as quickly as possible.
The pair hope, the analysts said, that a fait accompli would leave peace mediators Cyrus Vance and Lord David Owen no choice but to agree to changes Karadzic is demanding in the proposed map of 10 ethnic-based provinces into which their peace plan would divide Bosnia.
As the map currently stands, the Srebrenica region would be placed in one of three provinces that would be dominated by Muslim Slavs. This, analysts explain, is unacceptable to the Bosnian Serbs, who seek control of the republic's entire eastern border with Serbia. Hence, the need to eradicate Srebrenica, they say.
"It has never been the Serbs' intention to leave these pockets like little Muslim thorns in the Serbian side," a UN official says.
"What they want is to force Vance and Owen's hand to make some correction on the maps and have eastern Bosnia totally ethnically clean," Mr. Vasic said.
The need to complete the offensive quickly stems from the insistence by Mr. Vance and Lord Owen that Karadzic sign the map as it stands during the current round of peace talks. Bosnian Croat leader Mate Boban has signed the map, and Muslim President Alija Izetbegovic is showing greater willingness to accept it.
Unless Karadzic agrees to the plan, the UN Security Council is expected to approve additional sanctions against his main backer, Serbia-controlled rump Yugo-slavia, which would complete the country's economic, diplomatic, and political isolation.