THREE United Nations officers sat in an armored Land Rover on an icy road high in the hills above Sarajevo, waiting to take custody of some of the Bosnian Serb heavy weaponry that has been pounding the city for almost two years.
``They are supposed to bring their big guns down. But we don't think they will,'' says the Danish team leader, hunching his broad shoulders against the bitter cold. ``It's just a big game.''
The crisis has indeed become a deadly game of Balkan brinksmanship, with NATO holding the trump card of airstrikes against the Bosnian Serbs unless they withdraw their heavy guns and tanks from around Sarajevo or place them under UN control by midnight Feb. 20.
As the clock ticks down, the question remains whether the West will play that card with all its unknown consequences should the Bosnian Serbs and their political mentor, President Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia, call its bluff. Or, will the latest Western resolve fizzle out as have previous bids to stop the Bosnian Serb barrages.
``There will be no bombing,'' says Brig. Gen. Jovan Divjak, the Muslim-led Bosnian Army's deputy commander. ``There is no chance. It is just political pressure, not military pressure.''
But British Lt. Gen. Sir Michael Rose, the new commander of the UN Protection Force (UNPROFOR), insists that the West means business this time. ``We are determined to continue on the route we are on, and we are not going back on it,'' he told a half dozen American journalists in a weekend interview in his Sarajevo headquarters.
The Bosnian Serbs ``are politically in a changed setting. They are in a changed strategic environment, and they cannot avoid the logic of it,'' General Rose says. ``The strategy is different and they know it. ``You have the whole might of NATO behind me.''
He says that airstrikes would not automatically begin if the Bosnian Serbs fail to meet the NATO ultimatum, but would be launched in ``connectivity'' with specific outbreaks of shellfire.
``That means it's more to do with riposte and is seen in the public domain as a breach of the agreements we've made,'' he explains. ``I am not going around looking for some kind of token target.''
Senior Western officials stressed during the airstrikes debate that they be launched only as part of a larger strategy.
Since the NATO ultimatum was issued last Wednesday in response to the Feb. 5 mortar attack that killed 68 people in Sarajevo's main market, that strategy has emerged. It aims to avoid airstrikes as far as possible, while using the NATO threat and a UN-policed cease-fire that freezes Sarajevo's front lines to convince the Bosnian Serbs to withdraw their heavy guns.
Rose acknowledged that Bosnian Serb troops would continue besieging the city's now-overwhelmingly Muslim population of 380,000, who would remain dependent on UN aid flights. But, he asserted: ``You first have to stop the killing, and then you try to return things to normalcy. In terms of lifting the siege, it will be a step towards that.''
The NATO ultimatum was made in close coordination with Rose's opening gambit: an announcement that the Bosnian Army and Bosnian Serb forces had agreed to a cease-fire, withdrawal of heavy weapons to UN control, confidence-building UN troop deployments on front lines, and formation of a joint commission to hash out disputes.
eneral Divjak disclosed that the announcement surprised both sides. And, he said, Rose bullied them into compliance by threatening to publicly accuse of sabotage whichever side refused to attend the talks he called to inform them of his plan.
At first, the ploy appeared to work, with some 240 French UN troops deploying on front lines, where they are being joined by Malaysian soldiers. UN military observers also fanned out to await the surrender of heavy guns.
By Friday evening, the Bosnian Army had relinquished to armed UN Ukranian troops five mortars. The Bosnian Serbs withdrew to their main base just outside Sarajevo 13 heavy weapons systems, which were placed under the observation of unarmed UN military observers.
Pressure was then stepped up on the Bosnian Serbs, with the US and British governments announcing the evacuations of diplomatic families from the rump Yugoslav union of Serbia and Montenegro on Saturday.
A specially equipped US C-130 transport plane began nighttime patrols over Sarajevo to detect any movements of Bosnian Serb heavy weaponry to concealed positions. Rose also asked the UN for sophisticated US-made radar systems that track mortar fire, as well as 1,500 more troops to deploy on the front lines.
The cease-fire held. But Rose's gamble hit a major hurdle on Saturday, and the weapon surrenders ground to a halt. During fresh negotiations, the Bosnian Serbs rejected a UN plan setting a rigid timetable for the surrender of heavy arms. The plan was accepted by the Bosnian Army.
It called for the Bosnian Serbs to surrender by 5:30 p.m. Friday a total of 120 tanks, 60 heavy canon, and 135 mortars. The Bosnian Army was to turn over six tanks and 30 mortars in the same period.
All weaponry was to be held by UN forces at Sarajevo airport. ``This new plan is the first step in the implementation of NATO's ultimatum,'' said Col. Ljuban Kosovac, the Bosnian Serb negotiator. ``So, we refused to discuss it.''
The Bosnian Serb military also reiterated it would not withdraw heavy weaponry or turn it over to UN control unless Bosnian troops were pulled off front lines and confined to barracks under UN monitoring.
Bosnian Serb chief of staff General Manojlo Milovanovic told reporters here yesterday that withdrawal of his side's heavy artillery from around Sarajevo had been stopped.
``Back on Feb. 9, I said that if they wanted to put Serbian artillery under control, they had to put the Muslim infantry under control, because our artillery is a balance to the more numerous Muslim infantry,'' General Milovanovic said.
``I haven't changed my position because they [UNPROFOR] were unable to secure control of the Muslim infantry. Therefore I did not allow the withdrawal or control of the Serbian artillery,'' Milovanovic said.
Gen. Milan Gvero, the deputy Bosnian Serb commander, said that a ``balance of forces'' existed between the numerically superior Bosnian Army infantry and his side's advantage in heavy weapons.
``The Muslims started this war,'' he contended. ``The Muslims want to keep the war going. The Muslims do not want to sign the peace accord. So, why should only the Serbs be called on to retreat?''