THE commander of United Nations troops in Bosnia-Herzegovina yesterday signaled a new get-tough attitude a day after the heaviest attack on international peacekeeping forces since the war began 15 months ago.
"I have said to all my commanders that they must reply immediately," Belgian Lt. Gen. Francis Briquemont told reporters yesterday in response to a Bosnian Serb artillery attack against French troops Sunday. "They must fire against the aggressor immediately. It is purely self-defense.
"This is the last time that we restrain officers from exercising their right to self-defense," General Briguemont said.
It was not apparent what impact the attack would have on peace talks in Geneva between the three warring factions, scheduled to resume today. Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic, who refused last week to attend negotiations, ended his boycott and departed for Geneva yesterday.
The new attitude is especially crucial as Briguemont begins to oversee the deployment of UN forces to defend six Muslim-dominated communities, including Sarajevo, that the UN Security Council has designated as "safe havens." The regions constitute much of the territory remaining to the Bosnian Muslims. Bosnian Serb forces control at least 70 percent of the former Yugoslav republic. Bosnian Croat troops control about 20 percent.
Although the roughly 7,600-man UN Protection Force (UNPROFOR) in Bosnia has long been authorized to respond to attacks, it has exercised that power only rarely and reluctantly. That restraint has contributed to widespread contempt for the UN and the West among Muslims and Serbs and Croats loyal to the Bosnian government.
UNPROFOR has been "slow, inconsistent, and indecisive," President Izetbegovic said in a letter sent on Sunday to the Security Council.
The apparent change in the UN's attitude was provoked by a 45-minute bombardment on Sunday afternoon of a French unit by Bosnian Serb tanks and artillery dug into mountain ridges on the northern fringes of the Bosnian capital. There were no casualties, but several armored personnel carriers and trucks were damaged or destroyed. The French soldiers, stationed at the Zetra Stadium, which was built for the speed skating events of the 1984 Winter Olympics, are preparing to implement the safe-havens concept i n Sarajevo.
`WHAT happened [Sunday] is totally unacceptable," Briquemont said. "The French unit was attacked by direct fire from Serb tanks and anti-tank weapons located just to the north of the stadium." He said the attack clearly violated an accord he brokered between the warring factions under which they agreed to suspend all offensive actions at 10 a.m. local time Sunday.
Briquemont said he received a letter from Gen. Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb military chief, saying that the attack was staged by Bosnian Army forces deployed in Bistrik, a neighborhood in Sarajevo's old town. "I say that it is impossible to shoot against our tanks from the region of Bistrik," Briquemont replied.
In signaling the new get-tough attitude, Briquemont downplayed the use of Italy-based NATO aircraft, including jets provided by the United States, recently authorized by the Security Council to defend UN forces in Bosnia.
"When two or three tanks in little groups are firing, we must reply immediately," he said. "Air support is impossible to achieve in two to three seconds."
The attack on the French troops was the first serious trial for Briquemont, who assumed command of UNPROFOR in Bosnia less than two weeks ago.
The general has said his major tasks are to open major roads throughout Bosnia to UN relief convoys before the coming winter and to ensure sufficient calm so that political negotiations could proceed. He has requested an additional 2,000 troops, including engineers and combat units.
Briquemont has acknowledged that many Western states are reluctant to provide more soldiers or take the necessary political measures to stop the war.
"I think there is a gap now between the political strategy and the means the countries are ready to push to realize this strategy," he said. "To have revolutions, agreements, and so on is easy. But the problem is to realize that in the field."