SEEMINGLY abandoned by Belgrade, harassed by their foes, and pressed by the world to accept a peace plan that denies their goal of an ethnically pure state, the Bosnian Serbs have reached a dangerous new crossroads.
``This period is very critical,'' United Nations Special Envoy Yasushi Akashi told the Monitor. ``Provoking them to some irrational, desperate action could be unfortunate in the extreme.''
Another senior UN official says: ``The Bosnian Serb leadership is very beleaguered. They are angry and bitter. They say they are reassessing their options.''
The outcome of those deliberations may come tomorrow, when Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic says his self-proclaimed assembly will decide whether to ask the 28,000 UN peacekeepers to leave Bosnia-Herzegovina.
If the assembly demands a withdrawal, UN officials say, that would mean the Bosnian Serbs have decided to resort to military force to dictate the terms of a new peace settlement.
``They have only three options,'' the senior UN official says. ``One is acceptance of the peace plan. The chances of that are really zero. The second is standing still and muddling along. The third is simply escalating military operations.
``Clearly, they are very nervy and in a high state of war readiness,'' he continues.
A senior UN Protection Force commander says, ``When you have the isolation of a particular element that happens to control the key military terrain, there is a danger that they will decide on a preemptive action. I think there is an internal debate going on as to whether the road to peace or the road to war should be taken.''
The Bosnian Serbs' ambiguous behavior in recent days has bolstered the assessment of indecision as they came under fresh military and political pressures.
These included a Muslim-dominated Bosnian Army buildup inside a demilitarized zone (DMZ) atop strategic Mt. Igman, west of Sarajevo. Bosnian Army commandos on Thursday slipped out of the zone and killed 16 Bosnian Serb soldiers and four military nurses.
In what UN officials saw as retaliation, a Bosnian Serb gunner fired Saturday on two trams in downtown Sarajevo, killing one civilian and injuring 11 others.
While retaliating against civilians for military losses has long been their practice, the Bosnian Serbs surprisingly did not cut off newly restored utility supplies to the city, the peaks around which are now covered with the first winter snows.
And they stuck to an agreement allowing a resumption Sunday of the UN flights that provide 80 percent of the capital's food stocks, which shrank to less than a week of supplies during a two-week suspension of the airlift.
The suspension came when the Bosnian Serbs withdrew security guarantees after a Sept. 22 NATO airstrike against one of their tanks inside the heavy-weapons exclusion zone around Sarajevo.
The Bosnian Serbs have, however, continued disrupting UN aid convoys to the city, hampering efforts to build up food reserves before winter weather or new fighting closes the airport again.
An operation in which French UN troops fired warning shots to oust more than 600 Bosnian troops from the Mt. Igman DMZ over the weekend may have dissuaded an enraged Mr. Karadzic from retaliating more harshly for Thursday's Bosnian Army attack.
But at the same time, the international community has also stepped up military pressure on the Bosnian Serbs, with NATO on Friday asking the UN to authorize faster, more extensive airstrikes.
There have also been fresh political pressures on the Bosnian Serbs to accept the five-power ``contact group'' peace plan. It would divide Bosnia into a confederation, with the Serbs and the Muslim-Croat federation each getting about 50 percent.
The new pressures include a widening of a split between the Bosnian Serbs and President Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia.
Last Wednesday, international sanctions imposed in 1990 for Serbia's backing of the Bosnian Serbs were eased, following the UN's acceptance that Mr. Milosevic has kept his word to cut off strategic supplies to his former proxies for not accepting the contact group peace plan. Milosevic endorsed the plan in a bid to end the UN sanctions, which have devastated his economy.
Toward that end, he has also reportedly broached in recent international contacts Belgrade's possible recognition of Croatia and Bosnia within their current borders. Such a move would represent a total abandonment by Milosevic of the Serb separatists, who under his patronage seized parts of both former Yugoslav republics in wars that have left more than 200,000 people dead and millions homeless since 1991.
Despite the mounting odds against them, Karadzic and his leadership are still unshaken in their determination to see Milosevic's Greater Serbia project to completion.
``The Serbian state must be formed with a firm man's hand,'' says Momcilo Krajisnik, one of Karadzic's closest collaborators.
The senior UN commander worries that with winter approaching and their supplies apparently running low, the Bosnian Serbs may opt for a fast, concentrated knockout blow to force new negotiations on a peace plan of their liking.
``It is in their interest to strike earlier rather than later,'' the UN commander says.