STUNNED by a series of humiliating defeats over the past 10 days that could mark a turning point in the Bosnian war, rebel Serb troops this weekend began to fight back, according to United Nations officials.
But it is questionable whether the Bosnian Serbs, seemingly invincible for much of the 32-month conflict, will reassert themselves on the battlefield as internal conflicts, plummeting morale, and acute shortages of fuel and equipment have severely undermined their fighting capacity, Serbian analysts, UN officials, and Western diplomats say.
Over the weekend, UN officials said there were signs that the Serbs had begun a counteroffensive in northwestern Bosnia-Herzegovina, more than a week after incurring their first defeat in the war, when Muslim troops out of the Bihac enclave reclaimed nearly 95 square miles of territory.
Theaters of conflict
Intense fighting continued around Bosanska Krupa in northwest Bosnia yesterday, with both Muslims and Serbs suffering heavy casualties, the UN reported.
Bosnian Serb leader, Radovan Karadzic, pledged on Friday to drive the Muslims back. He ordered a general mobilization and signaled that his parliament will impose martial law when it convenes an emergency session this week. ``We are going to declare a state of war ... and fight to the final victory,'' Mr. Karadzic said.
But Karadzic's talk is widely viewed as rhetoric, aimed at lifting the flagging spirits of his army, which appears to be struggling to combat the resurgent government forces and their Bosnian Croat allies. UN officials in contact with Bosnian Serb leaders say they appear confused and taken aback by their losses.
``The strategic balance is slowly turning against the BSA [Serbs],'' Lt. Gen. Michael Rose, the commander of UN troops in Bosnia said on Saturday. ``There may come a moment when the Bosnian government perceives that it is in their interest to return to full-scale war.''
Serbia's three-month long blockade of the Bosnian Serbs, aimed at pressuring them to reconsider the international peace plan in the hope of easing UN sanctions against Belgrade, is the principal source of their troubles.
By cutting supplies of fuel, military hardware, and spare parts, Serbia has seriously impaired the military capability of its one-time clients.
Though up against numerically superior forces, the Bosnian Serbs have until now overwhelmed Bosnia government troops with a combination of ferocious firepower and highly mobile mechanized units. With the blockade, neither are as effective as they were, says Alexander Vasovic, a military commentator for the independent Belgrade radio station B-92.
This has left the Serbs' 1,242-miles of front line more vulnerable than ever - a fact the Bosnian Army has been keen to exploit. ``The Muslims are now waging a specific type of war, involving: the use of small units which penetrate the breaches in the Serbs' positions; flanking attacks; and the insertion of commando groups behind Serb lines,'' says Bratislav Grubacic, a Serbian political analyst.
Shunned by Belgrade
But Serbia's embargo has not only hurt the Bosnian Serbs in a material sense, it has also affected them psychologically.
``Initially, they saw the embargo as little more than a short-term tactic employed by [Serbian President Slobodan] Milosevic to ease sanctions. But with no end to the dispute in sight, their confidence has been badly shaken,'' says one senior UN official.
Morale may have been even further eroded by Mr. Karadzic himself. He's turned against his own people, fearing that Milosevic-loyalists among them are plotting to unseat him and install a more pliant leader who would reverse the Bosnian Serbs' rejection of the peace plan.
Karadzic purges the ranks
Over a month ago, the self-styled Bosnian Serb interior ministry announced that Karadzic disbanded rounded-up members of his intelligence service Typhoon - which before the split with Belgrade had worked closely with Serbia's security services - believing it was serving Mr. Milosevic's interests.
And in the last two weeks, Karadzic has undertaken a purge of his army and police force, arresting an undisclosed number of officers accused of attempting to undermine the state.
The crackdown has been heaviest in the northwestern town of Banja Luka, the largest Bosnian Serb population center and considered a hotbed of anti-Karadzic sentiment. A year ago, the army mounted a mutiny there and called for the resignation of their political leaders, charging them with rampant corruption. Karadzic, whose relations with Belgrade had at the time started to sour because of his refusal to exchange land for peace, accused Milosevic of fomenting the rebellion.
In the wake of the Muslim offensive in the Bihac region just over a week ago, Karadzic renewed his attacks on his army. Sources close to the Bosnian Serb leadership say it has pinned the blame for the defeats on the ``treasonable conduct of officers in the pay of Belgrade.''
In the Bosnian Serb capital, Pale, the climate of fear is palpable. Though the thunder of fierce artillery duels reverberate around the hills, people shrink from talking to journalists about the latest outbreak of fighting, as if one ill-judged word might incriminate them.
``They arrested my friend and interrogated him for three days,'' confided one young soldier, who recently returned to Pale after a tour of duty to find his friend behind bars. ``He's fought on the front line throughout the war. How could they suspect him of betrayal?''
Karadzic's apparent paranoia even extends to suspicion of ordinary people. He's warned that anyone caught spreading disinformation or committing treason will be court-martialled and face the death penalty.
Bosnian Serbs' options
Diplomats believe that if the Bosnian Serbs' troubles worsen, Karadzic may choose to abandon his opposition to the peace plan. Some suspect that he has already started coming round to the initiative, having assessed that he cannot continue to prosecute the war without Serbia's help.
According to the European Union peace mediator, Lord David Owen, much of the land lost to the Muslims and Croats is due to be ceded to them under the plan anyway, and could explain why the Serbs have been so slow to mount a counteroffensive.
Milosevic is nervously watching the unfolding Bosnian drama, Serbian analysts say. On the one hand, they say, he stands to benefit if the Serbs sue for peace - a move that would almost certainly relax UN sanctions. On the other, should they decide to fight on, and in doing so incur even greater losses, the Serbian leader might be forced to bail them out, risking further international isolation.
``Milosevic fears that serious defeats for the Serbs in Bosnia could lead to the strengthening of hard-line nationalist officers in the Yugoslav Army, who could demand that it intervene in the Bosnian conflict,'' Mr. Grubacic says.