Bosnia Serbs Try to Avert Airstrikes By Splitting UN, NATO

IS the first semblance of international coordination on the Bosnian crisis degenerating into the familiar old pattern of disagreement and disarray?

There are strong indications that it is.

On one side are the UN operation in former Yugoslavia, Russia, and other opponents of NATO's threat to launch airstrikes against the Bosnian Serbs unless they withdraw their heavy guns 13 miles from Sarajevo or place them under UN control by Feb. 20.

On the other are NATO and the Western governments, particularly the United States and France, which pressed for the ultimatum after the Feb. 5 massacre of 68 civilians in Sarajevo's main marketplace.

Driving the wedge between the two sides are the Bosnian Serbs.

``We are not dealing with NATO at all. We are dealing with the United Nations,'' said Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic.

``For sure, the United Nations are not going to make anything advantageous for the Muslim side,'' he said. ``We are always glad when UN people are deciding.''

Once again, Mr. Karadzic is skillfully playing on UN desires to remain ``impartial'' and the concerns of UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali and his political and military advisers over intervening in what is already Europe's bloodiest conflict since World War II.

Karadzic appears to be trying to enlist their help in presenting the world with a fait accompli that eliminates the rationale for NATO airstrikes, while effectively allowing his forces to preserve possession of their big guns and his own domestic political credibility. If successful, he would maintain the powerful bargaining chip of the 50-mile-round stranglehold on Sarajevo, its 380,000 people, and the Muslim-led Bosnian government.

Danger for the West

Such an outcome would represent the greatest loss of credibility yet for the Western powers and strike directly at NATO's philosophical foundation.

The West appears to be fully aware of this. As Washington's UN ambassador, Madelaine Albright, put it to the UN Security Council on Feb. 14: ``We are entering unchartered waters. Cooperation between NATO and the UN is essential, not only for the citizens of Sarajevo and other [UN-designated] safe areas in Bosnia, but also for the precedent set for the future of collective security.''

At the heart of the matter is the esoteric question of what constitutes control of heavy artillery.

The UN and NATO initially marched lock-step in their demand that the Bosnian Serbs and Bosnian Army place their heavy weaponry in the custody of the UN Protection Force.

UNPROFOR's Bosnia commander, British Lt. Gen. Michael Rose, drew up a tight timetable outlining the specific numbers of tanks, mortars, and cannons the two sides were to deliver each day at UN-controlled Sarajevo airport. The surrenders were to be completed by 5:30 p.m. on Feb. 18.

The Bosnian Army agreed and began turning its tiny armory of mortars over to armed UN Ukrainian troops.

But the Bosnian Serbs rejected the plan. They argued it would upset a front-line ``balance of power'' by depriving them of the huge advantage in heavy guns that has allowed them to contain Sarajevo's more numerous Bosnian Army infantry.

The Serbs then launched their counter-gambit, demanding a Bosnian Army front-line pullback despite the confidence-building deployment of UNPROFOR troops to secure the most successful cease-fire of the 22-month-old conflict.

At the same time, they began withdrawing a tiny fraction of their heavy artillery to their own military bases located well within the 13-mile NATO-set ``exclusion zone.'' Bosnian Serb commanders allowed only unarmed UN military observers to see the arms, and only periodically. They also said UN monitors could watch weapons in the positions in which they are deployed.

This seems to be an adequate compromise as far as UNPROFOR officials, including General Rose, are concerned. ``We do not need troops standing by every gun. If they are moved, we will know,'' asserted an UNPROFOR spokesman.

If this pattern continues, the Bosnian Serbs may well receive Rose's seal of approval and thus avert airstrikes as only Rose, in his own words, has the authority to order them. The Bosnian Serbs would thus retain their capability of rolling out and using their weapons, and Sarajevo would remain threatened.

Seen before in Croatia

Observers recall what happened last year when the Croatian Army launched an offensive against areas held by minority Serb rebels in violation of a 1992 cease-fire.

The Serbs merely stormed UNPROFOR-guarded warehouses in which they had placed the heavy weapons as part of the cease-fire pact, seized the arms, and redeployed them. They have never been returned to storage.

NATO officials and Western governments are clearly aware of this danger. The US and France are stressing that there will be no extension of the NATO ultimatum and that the Bosnian Serb heavy guns must be secured inside UN-controlled locations. In response, UNPROFOR officers insist that they will know where all the Bosnian Serb's heavy weapons are.

But observers cite the failure of Western forces to locate and neutralize Iraqi Scud missile batteries during the Gulf war.

Rose tried to lay the issue to rest Feb. 14, saying airstrikes would be launched against all Bosnian Serb heavy guns remaining in the 13-mile NATO exclusion zone around Sarajevo after the expiration of the ultimatum.

But it was not apparent whether his warning covers those the Bosnian Serbs are gathering in their own military bases.

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