Force Remains Tool of Choice In Run-Up to Bosnia Talks

West's inability to unite on a solution dampens prospects

EVEN though the upsurge in fighting in Bosnia-Herzegovina has provoked renewed international attention, there seems little hope that the latest peace efforts will be any more successful than previous attempts.

The lack of optimism over an end to the slaughter that has claimed about 200,000 lives since March 1992 remains, due primarily to warring factions' persistent failures to either implement cease-fires or make the requisite political concessions.

But, analysts also blame the continued inability of the Western powers to unite on a consistent approach to Europe's worst conflict since World War II.

Their failures to implement United Nations resolutions they themselves have sponsored prompted the resignation last week of Belgian Gen. Francis Briquemont, the third UN commander in Bosnia in less than two years.

But more critical, analysts say, is the lack of a credible Western consensus so vital to guaranteeing the conclusion and implementation of the plan to divide Bosnia into ethnic ``ministates'' on which talks will resume in Geneva on Jan. 18.

``I don't think anyone has yet been able to sort through the various statements coming out of the Western capitals and find something cohesive,'' a Western diplomat says.

The bleak outlook has been acknowledged by mediators Lord David Owen and Thorwald Stoltenberg, who warn that UN forces could be withdrawn from Bosnia.

The situation on the ground provides no reason for believing the fighting will end even if Lord Owen and Mr. Stoltenberg hammer out an accord between the Muslim Slav-led Bosnian government, the Bosnian Serbs, and Bosnian Croats.

Even as Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic met his Croatian counterpart, Franjo Tudjman, on Sunday for talks in Bonn on a truce in central Bosnia, the Muslim Slav-dominated Bosnian Army opened a new drive on the Bosnian Croat-held town of Vitez.

Fierce combat has also persisted elsewhere, including around Sarajevo, where almost 50 people have been killed and scores injured in the past week in bombardments by Bosnian Serb forces that temporarily halted the UN's ongoing airlift of relief supplies.

For its part, the Sarajevo government - the biggest loser in the war as well as under the proposed carve-up of Bosnia - has several incentives to continue fighting.

With force the only real determinant of territorial dealmaking, the Bosnian leadership seems committed to continuing a string of conquests in central Bosnia areas held by hard-pressed, outmanned Bosnian Croat militiamen.

Furthermore, a settlement would lead to the lifting of UN sanctions just as they are having a serious effect on the rump Yugoslav union of Serbia and Montenegro, underwriters of the Bosnian Serbs' ethnic cleansing offensives that ignited the war and overran 70 percent of Bosnia.

While they have agreed to give the Muslims 33 percent of Bosnia in the proposed ethnic partition, Bosnian Serb leaders refuse to relinquish the specific territories sought by the Bosnian government in return for its agreement to the plan.

Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic on Sunday reiterated his ``aim'' to unite captured territories with Serbia as part of ``Greater Serbia.''

The Bosnian Croats and their main patron, Mr. Tudjman, also remain intent on merging the 17 percent of Bosnia under Croatian control into a ``Greater Croatia. They continue to reject territorial concessions sought by the Bosnian government, including a strip of coastline along the Adriatic Sea.

Tudjman last week threatened direct intervention by his Army unless the Bosnian Army halted its central Bosnia offensives. His regime, meanwhile, began rounding up Bosnia-born male citizens of Croatia and inducting them into Bosnian Croat militias, some of which are being aided against the Bosnian Muslims by their former Bosnian Serb rivals.

All of this - coupled with the resignation of General Briquemont, UN Secretary-General Boutros-Boutros Ghali's refusal to allow NATO airstrikes in defense of UN troops, the ongoing fighting, and disruption of UN aid deliveries - has left the UN operation in Bosnia as hard-pressed and demoralized as ever.

MEANWHILE, international responses remained ineffective and confusing. The US and Britain renewed a veiled threat of military action in a protest note delivered Jan. 7 to President Slobodan Milosevic demanding that his Bosnian Serb proxies stop their bombardments of Sarajevo, diplomatic sources say.

But the attacks continued, Serbian leaders apparently confident such threats would not be carried out.

Such confidence was likely strengthened when President Clinton on Sunday pledged Washington's commitment to the security of eastern and central European states - without mentioning Bosnia.

``We cannot control every event in every country every day,'' he said in Brussels on the eve of the annual NATO summit. The US has also given a lukewarm reception to a new French call for NATO airstrikes on Bosnian Serb positions - originally a Clinton administration idea - and a greater US role in the UN military force.

France's new stance, meanwhile, stood in contradiction to its recent warnings that it may have to pull its contingent, the largest component of the UN Protection Force, out of Bosnia unless a peace settlement is reached in the coming months.

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