Tables Turn in Bosnian Conflict

Tensions have escalated across the Balkan nation after the largest government offensive in 31 months of war

IN its biggest military victory in 31 months of war, the Bosnian government has signaled the end of its willingness to wait out a diplomatic solution to the conflict.

The Muslim-led Bosnian Army Fifth Corps has captured up to 77 square miles of territory in a northwestern region known as the Bihac pocket, causing about 10,000 Bosnian Serb soldiers and civilians to flee.

Renewed fighting in the north has contributed to an overall escalation in tensions in Bosnia-Herzegovina amid the Bosnian Serbs' continued refusal to accept a peace plan unveiled in July by international mediators.

Enraged by the offensive, Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic has vowed to recapture the lost ground and has threatened to launch a counteroffensive within days.

``Our enemy wants war, and he shall have it,'' Mr. Karadzic said at a front-line rally Sunday night in the northwestern town of Bosanski Petrovac. The town is teeming with at least 5,000 Serb refugees who fled the Muslim offensive, which began Oct. 25.

The United Nations commander in Bosnia, Lt. Gen. Michael Rose, warned he will respond to any further attacks with NATO airstrikes.

UN and NATO officials last week agreed on a more vigorous airstrike policy that now applies to all factions in the war, not just the Serbs.

The government offensive signals an end to its patience with the ``contact group'' - the international group of negotiators from the United States, Russia, France, Britain, and Germany - which has failed to take promised steps to force the Bosnian Serbs to accept its peace plan. These include ending a UN arms embargo on Sarajevo.

About 200 Bosnian Serb fighters and about 1,700 civilian refugees, still angry and humiliated, fled last week to this Croatian town from the besieged Muslim enclave of Bihac ahead of the Bosnian Army offensive. (Attack on journalists, left.)

In northern Bosnia, an Army advance has reportedly narrowed the corridor that Bosnian Serbs consider vital to uniting the land they hold with Serbia and Serb-held land in Croatia.

Tensions also remain high around Sarajevo, with the government drawing a UN threat of NATO airstrikes after its troops on Saturday shelled French UN soldiers trying to dislodge them from a demilitarized zone atop Mt. Igman, west of the capital.

The Muslim-led government says its soldiers will not withdraw until UN troops take steps to halt Bosnian Serb attacks on the only land route into Sarajevo, which crosses Mt. Igman.

The government's more aggressive posture also seems aimed at forcing the Bosnian Serbs to run down stocks of strategic supplies that they are apparently no longer receiving from their estranged sponsor, President Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia.

President Milosevic, anxious to end UN sanctions that have devastated the economy of the rump Yugoslav union of Serbia and Montenegro, announced the blockade two months ago after the Bosnian Serbs spurned his demand that they sign the contact-group peace plan.

That plan would give the Bosnian Serbs, who control about 70 percent of the country, 49 percent of the territory.

The rest would go to the Muslim-Croat federation, including the territory captured by the Fifth Corps.

UN officials say they are unsure precisely how much farther the Fifth Corps has pushed since its initial success, because both sides have barred UN military observers from the combat zone.

The eastern thrust is believed to have encircled Bosanska Krupa, about 20 miles from Bihac on the Una River. Less is known about the southern thrust, although Bosnian Serb fighters in Donji Lapac said the Fifth Corps had pushed 40 miles along the border with Croatia to Kulen Vakuf.

The gains may still be reversed by a counterattack by the Bosnian Serbs and their Croatian Serbs, who admit that they have been sending men into Bosnia because the Fifth Corps advance is threatening their own supply line to far-off Serbia.

But whether the Bosnian Serbs would mount such a counterattack was questionable, as the lost territory would go to the Muslim-Croat federation anyway under the contact-group peace plan.

In addition, the Bosnian Serbs are known to have a serious manpower shortage, and mounting a major counterthrust against the Fifth Corps could require taking troops from other critical fronts.

``The Muslims attacked us and burned our homes,'' a soldier from Ripac, five miles south of Bihac, claimed to Western reporters in Donji Lapac before their gun-point expulsion.

Others told unsubstantiated tales of atrocities, something common to all sides in the conflict.

``A massacre was committed. People were slaughtered with knives,'' asserted one fighter.

The Bosnian Serb soldiers in this Croatian border town, dressed in camoflauge uniforms and heavily armed with grenades tucked in their belts and Kalasnikov rifles slung over their shoulders, were extremely hostile.

They accused the Western press of being pro-Muslim and said the press has lied about what's happened in Bosnia.

``It [Bihac] was a protected area. But the Muslims did not respect the rule of the UN or that it was a protected area and they even complained that they had no weapons or munitions,'' claimed one Bosnian Serb soldier. ``They came in a huge force to kill everything.''

Such allegations, however, ignored the fact that Bihac's safe area status was never implemented by the UN or accepted by the Bosnian Serb gunners who shelled the city.

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