UNITED Nations officials hope expanding the use of airstrikes in Bosnia, now under consideration by NATO, may stem future Serb advances. But collateral damage to the UN mission and its credibility already seems irreparable.
Continued Serb defiance of UN threats, the detainment of more than 100 UN personnel, and unsuccessful NATO bombing raids aimed at halting the Bosnian Serb offensive around the eastern Bosnian enclave of Gorazde have led to a feeling of ``bleakness'' at UN headquarters in Zagreb.
``There is not a lot of hope evident at the moment,'' says UN spokesman Michael Williams. ``The feeling is one of considerable bleakness I would say.''
NATO officials are considering a request this week by UN Secretary-General Boutros-Boutros Ghali to use airstrikes to protect the civilian population in addition to UN personnel in the six UN- declared ``safe areas.''
NATO officials, meeting in Brussels yesterday, announced they had tentatively approved the UN request for airstrikes against Bosnian Serbs who attack Muslim safe areas. A final decision on the airstrikes has been delayed pending advice from the military, but they say a final decision should be reached by the end of this week.
Previously, the UN was authorized to use only ``limited'' NATO air power in the safe areas to defend UN personnel coming under direct attack.
This limited action proved ineffective in the heat of battle around Gorazde last week when one UN British liaison officer was killed, another wounded, and a British Harrier jet shot down as it searched for a tank firing into a hospital in the city center.
NATO used only a handful of the 100 planes assembled for use over Bosnian air space to try to halt the relentless Serb offensive on Gorazde. More than 320 have been killed and 1,200 wounded in the three-week-old attack, according to UN estimates.
Additionally, intelligence sharing between UN and NATO remains a serious problem in coordinating efforts between UN forces on the ground and NATO.
UN officials complain that participating countries, especially the United States, only selectively provide the UN with intelligence they gather by their own means.
The US has access to high-tech intelligence via US AWACS (reconnaissance aircraft) circling above Bosnia, but only shares with the UN what it deems necessary, the officials say.
If, for example, the UN had access to US intelligence in Gorazde, UN officials say, they may have been alerted to the potential political and military disaster far in advance.
One senior UN official says the UN's intelligence capacity in Gorazde was limited to ``two UN military observers and three pairs of binoculars.''
Bosnian Serbs detained more than 100 UN civilian and military personnel following the first NATO airstrikes last week.
Although the Serbs have allowed at least 45 of them freedom of movement within Bosnian Serb territory, UN officials admit that as long as their personnel remain on Bosnian Serb soil, they are in danger of Serb abduction.
``When it comes down to it, the West just does not have the political will to fight a war with the Serbs,'' one UN official says.
``The UN is simply a scapegoat for the US and other governments who don't want to take on the criticism for their own foreign policies,'' he adds.
AT best, the Gorazde aftermath has left the UN mission in disarray and set dangerous precedents for the other six UN safe areas, notably Zepa, Srebrenica, and two other Muslim enclaves in eastern Bosnia.
``I don't see [Radko] Mladic [the Bosnian Serb commander] stopping here. He has seen what NATO will do, and there is nothing to stop him from taking Zepa and Srebrenica,'' says a UN civilian official.
Bosnian Serbs have vowed that they do not intend to take the Gorazde city center.
Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic said Tuesday that Serbs ``really want Gorazde to become a demilitarized region.'' He said the Serb attack was not aimed at taking the entire town, just the south bank of the Drina River, which divides Gorazde.
``Sending several thousands of refugees fleeing would not be the best Serb public relations move at this point,'' one UN military official says.
The official predicts that the Serbs, having already gained a key military supply road running through the pocket, will eventually hand it over to the UN.
``The Serbs will be praised for having mercy on the town,'' he says. ``And the UN will have to accept the responsibility of housing and feeding the people, and in effect they will be imprisoned there.''
Already, Serb forces have made moves to try to widen a thin but essential supply corridor above Muslim-controlled Tuzla, another UN-declared safe area in northern Bosnia.
UN military observers say while attention has focused on Gorazde, Bosnian Serbs have pounded the area with between 200 and 300 shells daily over the past week.
``We are in real trouble. I don't see things getting back to normal for a long time,'' a UN official says.