WESTERN governments and the United Nations have yet to determine whether the rump Yugoslav union of Serbia and Montenegro has really cut off strategic support to the Bosnian Serbs. Experts say they may have enough supplies to fight on for months.
``That's the No. 1 intelligence question out there today, but we don't have anyone on the ground assessing it,'' a US State Department official admits. ``The only thing we're going to get is going to come from a [spy] satellite.''
The dearth of hard data has prompted the UN Security Council to ask the UN Protection Force (UNPROFOR) to determine just how tightly rump Yugoslavia has sealed its borders with Bosnian Serb-controlled eastern Bosnia-Herzegovina.
``We will go through a variety of ways to determine what exactly is happening on the border,'' a UN official says.
UNPROFOR, he says, has requested stepped-up NATO aerial surveillance along the frontier, and UN military observers ``will attempt to ascertain what information they can on the ground.''
French Gen. Bertrand de Lapresle, the UNPROFOR military commander, discussed the possible deployment of UN border monitors with Yugoslav Army chief of staff, Gen. Moncilo Perisic, in Belgrade Monday, UN officials say.
Rump Yugoslavia's paramount ruler and the Bosnian Serbs' estranged patron, President Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia, has consistently rejected the deployment of UN monitors.
Skeptics buttress their doubts about Belgrade's Aug. 4 announcement that it has cut off the Bosnian Serbs by citing the lack of an invitation to UNPROFOR to post monitors on frontier crossings since.
Peace plan rejected
The announcement followed the Bosnian Serbs' refusal to heed Mr. Milosevic's demand that they accept the five-power ``Contact Group'' peace plan for dividing Bosnia with the Muslim-Croat federation.
Western diplomats believe Milosevic wants the Bosnian Serbs to accept the plan to avoid a tightening of UN sanctions against Serbia, but that he would then assist the Bosnian Serbs in dragging out its implementation indefinitely. A Stalinist-style media tirade against the Bosnian Serb leadership aside, the only hard evidence that Belgrade has cut off its erstwhile proxies are the massive truck backups at major border crossings on the Drina River.
But, experts say that without observers on the ground, it is almost impossible to assess how strict the blockade is.
The Drina demarcates only the northern third of the border, which then slices for hundreds of miles through mountains and forests that are difficult for US satellite lenses to pierce.
And, the satellites ``are not there all the time. They only take a snapshot and move on,'' notes Andrew Duncan of the London-based International Institute of Strategic Studies.
Says Michael Roskin, a political science professor who studied the Yugoslav military at the US Army War College, ``A couple of border crossings have been closed, but there are dozens of crossings that are not observed.''
Mr. Roskin says he is skeptical about the professed cutoff because any real blockade will also hurt minority Serb rebels in Croatia whose only supply route from Serbia runs through Bosnian Serb-held northern Bosnia.
A former US military officer who specialized on former Yugoslavia says he believes the blockade is real, but that it could quickly collapse like the one Milosevic declared last year after the Bosnian Serbs spurned the Owen-Stoltenberg peace plan.
He says Milosevic will have to ``turn the spigot back on'' if the Muslim-led Bosnian Army's continues a new offensive it has reportedly launched against the Serbs.
Experts disagree on effect
Amid the doubts about the blockade, experts differ over whether the Bosnian Serbs could ever be coerced by anything other than force to forego their political goals and sign the peace plan.
Milos Vasic of Belgrade-based Vreme magazine contends that the blockade is real and the Bosnian Serbs will relent.
``They cannot exist on their own. They have no fuel, no ammunition, no spare parts for their weapons,'' he says. ``They only have some reserves, but not the capacity to produce anything themselves. They depend entirely on [rump] Yugoslavia's support. They will be finished in a month or two.''
Others disagree, explaining that the Bosnian Serbs inherited massive Yugoslav Army logistics, military stockpiles, and munitions-manufacturing facilities.
An estimated 80 percent of the former Yugoslavia's military infrastructure was located in Bosnia under a military doctrine that called for the mountainous republic to become the base of a guerrilla-style struggle in the event of an invasion.
``As far as ammunition, weapons, and spare parts, they [the Bosnian Serbs] can go for a long time,'' says the former US military officer. ``They have the ability to make their own spare parts and ammunition.''
The key question, many experts agree, is how much fuel the Bosnian Serbs have stored underground for the armored forces that have given them an advantage over the Muslim-led Bosnian Army's more numerous infantry contingents.
``It could be at least three months before they feel the [fuel] pinch,'' says Pentagon spokesman Cmdr. Charles Franklin. ``Equipment is not going to be the key factor in a cutoff, [black market] fuel will be.''
The Bosnian Serbs have also gotten fuel from Fikret Abdic, a rebel Muslim businessman who broke with Sarajevo last year in a bid to set up an autonomous northwestern province. But, Mr. Abdic now appears close to defeat after losing huge swaths of territory this week to Bosnian government forces.