THE devastating mortar attack on Sarajevo over the weekend may transform the European Union's collective angst over the former Yugoslavia into concerted action to stop the two-year-long Bosnian conflict.
EU foreign ministers met yesterday in Brussels to discuss possible military moves, including selective airstrikes, designed to end hostilities in the former Yugoslavia.
At the opening of the meeting, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said ``Yugoslavia is a test of our honor, and even a test of the European Union.''
A draft document backing the use of force was agreed upon at the EU meeting, according to Reuters, but the bombing plan had not been formally approved as of yesterday afternoon.
If a decision is made to launch bombing raids against the Serbs, it would come only after a formal meeting of the 16 NATO member states. Informal talks were scheduled for yesterday afternoon, and a formal meeting could occur as early as today.
United Nations' officials are unable to say precisely who is responsible for lobbing a mortar shell Saturday into a crowded market in the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo. But many in EU member states are blaming the Bosnian Serb forces besieging the city.
At least 68 people were killed and 200 wounded by the single mortar blast. United States military transport planes on Sunday began evacuating the wounded for treatment at a US military hospital in Germany. US officials said a total of about 130 wounded, along with family members, were expected in Germany.
At the Brussels EU meeting, members also were expected to call on the US to intensify its efforts to bring peace to Yugoslavia.
The conflict in Bosnia is a three-way struggle. The Serbs contend it is an ethnic and religious war among Serbs, Croats, and Muslims; others, including most Western governments, contend it is a phase of a plan to create a ``Greater Serbia'' by merging areas of Bosnia and Croatia to the rump Yugoslavia of Serbia and Montenegro. Belgrade has been accused of providing assistance to its ``proxies'' in Bosnia, and evidence has been found of troops from both Croatia and Serbia joining in the fighting.
The debate on the use of force is nothing new to the EU, and in the past the members have been deeply divided on the issue. While EU members find it easy to condemn Serb aggression in unison, some states have maintained that military action would hasten a settlement, while others argued that it would only intensify the warfare. As a result, previous use-of-force deliberations have ended in deadlock.
There are signs, however, that the outcome of the current round of talks could be different. The horrific images of the Sarajevo market blast already have caused several leading European diplomats to raise the rhetoric a notch.
French officials are calling on NATO to issue an ultimatum to Bosnian Serb forces to either lift their blockade of Sarajevo or face NATO military reprisals.
Foreign Minister Juppe said the Bosnian Serb forces should meet two requirements: retire to a line at least 18 miles from Sarajevo, and hand over all heavy weapons, such as artillery and mortars, to UN forces. Other warring factions must also give up control of heavy weapons. He did not provide a timetable for his proposed ultimatum.
WESTERN airstrikes in Yugoslavia must be conducted under the auspices of NATO, which in turn can act only on instructions from the UN. On Sunday, UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali sent a letter to NATO chief Manfred Woerner asking that the alliance prepare for airstrikes.
Previously, the UN had authorized NATO only to provide air cover, if needed, for UN peacekeepers on the ground.
Several EU and NATO members continue to have reservations about the use of force. Officials in Britain say NATO airstrikes could ultimately endanger British troops who are helping facilitate deliveries of humanitarian aid. Greece, which currently holds the rotating EU presidency, is against bombing Serbs, who are Orthodox Christian cousins of the Greeks.
In a bid to head off any punitive NATO action, Serb officials raised yesterday with EU peace negotiator Lord David Owen the possibility of the demilitarization of Sarajevo apart from an overall Bosnian settlement. Sarajevo's fate will figure greatly in Geneva talks Thursday, Lord Owen says. All previously negotiated cease-fire attempts have been violated.
Another consideration is that NATO air raids would rile Russian ultranationalists, who see themselves as defenders of Orthodoxy worldwide. Ultranationalists already are trying to stir up anti-Western sentiment in Russia, and NATO attacks against Serbs could provide extra ammunition. ``If we allow the enemy into the Balkans, the next attack will be on Russia,'' ultranationalist leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky said Sunday.
Germany is the NATO member that has the most to lose by a potential revival of Russian hostility toward the West, which could prompt a new wave of emigration from Eastern and Central Europe. Yet Chancellor Helmut Kohl's government supports NATO airstrikes.
``We must find a way together with the United States to end this war,'' German Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel said in a statement.