NATO Airstrikes in Bosnia Still a Threat, Not a Reality

AS Sarajevans continue to bury loved ones lost in their city's single deadliest mortar attack of Bosnia-Herzegovina's two-year war, an orchestra of voices across Europe asks if a turning point in the conflict has been reached.

With NATO ambassadors meeting today to consider airstrikes to end the siege of Sarajevo, and Bosnia's warring factions resuming peace talks in Geneva Feb. 10, the ``turning point'' in question concerns not so much the situation on the ground as the preparedness of the international community to move from declaration to action.

Despite a shift in sentiment in favor of military action, many observers say airstrikes are still unlikely. A number of analysts sense that still-harsher threats will be devised to influence negotiations - with a focus on Sarajevo and attempts to promote a lifting of the city's siege - but words will not yet be replaced by bombs.

NATO's action is being ``pushed along by [UN Secretary-General] Boutros Boutros-Ghali for reasons tied to strengthening the negotiating position in Geneva,'' a NATO official says. ``The idea seems to be to focus on securing Sarajevo as a safe haven as an intermediary solution.''

Any NATO approval of airstrikes will still require Mr. Boutros-Ghali's go-ahead - in the face of firm Russian opposition. And declarations by Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic Feb. 7, signaling the Serbs' readiness to consider Sarajevo's demilitarization, may refocus Western leaders on negotiations - just as similar declarations, though never honored, have in the past.

In addition, UN military officials on the ground still warn against airstrikes. In an interview in the French weekly L'Express, Gen. Francis Briquemont, former UN forces commander in Bosnia, calls airstrikes a ``miracle solution ... inherited from the Gulf war,'' whose use would be ``criminal,'' given the scattered positioning of UN troops.

Meeting Feb. 7, just two days after the horrifying mortar attack on Sarajevo's central market, foreign ministers of the European Union (EU, formerly called the European Community), had little choice but to toughen their tone. The 12 ministers called for an ``immediate'' end to the Bosnian capital's siege.

But they failed to endorse French demands for an ``ultimatum'' by which time the siege should end, thus exposing the divisions that still plague the EU. ``I would have preferred a little harder position,'' said Belgian Foreign Minister Willy Claes.

Several EU members, including Britain, Spain, and Greece, continued to express reservations about airstrikes, even though British Foreign Minister Douglas Hurd stated publicly that the ``balance'' that till now opposed military action had now ``swung in favor.''

ONE drawback of military action, these countries say, is the threat of reprisals against the UN's 28,000 troops in Bosnia - many of whom are European. Playing on that fear, Mr. Karadzic accompanied his ``carrot'' of Sarajevo's demilitarization with a ``stick'' of his own: ``No foreigners would be safe'' and would be considered ``enemies'' in the event of airstrikes, he warned.

French officials said France would push at the NATO meeting for an ultimatum for fully demilitarizing Sarajevo. They challenged the arguments coming from some Western countries that an ultimatum would require a new UN resolution, noting that Resolution 824 of May 6, 1993, already demands the demilitarization of the Bosnian capital.

A determining factor in NATO's deliberations will be the United States position. President Clinton said on Feb. 7 that he welcomed Boutros-Ghali's request to NATO to approve punitive airstrikes, but added he would want certain identification of the party responsible for the Feb. 5 mortar attack before seeing an attack launched. Secretary of State Warren Christopher said the US would seek a broader response than punitive strikes to what he called a ``pattern'' of Serbian aggression against civilians.

But many observers, rendered skeptical by more than a year of tough Western declarations, doubt that the pattern is about to change. ``Each side [of the Atlantic] hides behind the hesitations of the other as an excuse for doing nothing,'' says Jacques Julliard, a journalist and author of a new book on the dangers for Europe of an ``ethnically cleansed'' Bosnia. Last spring it was the US that called for military action but bowed to European qualms, he notes. Now it's the French who are sounding toughest even while hiding behind US reticence.

That pattern was repeated just after the Feb. 5 mortar attack, when President Clinton told Americans that US action was held up by European hesitations. But ever since Mr. Christopher's visit here in January, which revealed deep Franco-US divisions over the peace process, French officials have said that the US's disengagement from the Bosnian war has tied Europe's hands.

All this positioning has left the public cynical about the likelihood of concrete action to stop Sarajevo's slow death. ``Our governments are a joke. The only place the people of Sarajevo, of Bosnia, can look with hope is in public opinion,'' said philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy, who joined several hundred protesters outside the French Foreign Ministry on Feb. 7. ``It's true we aren't very many out here, but we want to send a message from the people. In the governments, there is no more hope.''

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