BY gaining control of the strategic Bihac area, military analysts say Bosnia's Serbs may have in effect won their bitter, two-year-old war against the Muslim-led Bosnian government.
A relentless counteroffensive by Serb armed forces has given them a commanding military position in the field, further weakened Western resolve to stop the Serbs, and provided them with control of even more territory to force the West to come up with a new peace plan more to Serb liking, analysts say.
``[The Bosnian Muslims] are now in far more danger of being knocked out permanently,'' says retired Col. Andrew Duncan, an analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. ``But I'm not sure this is over. You're dealing with some fairly stubborn people on both sides.''
British Foreign Minister Douglas Hurd said yesterday he would call for new international pressure for a ``negotiated peace.'' And representatives of the so-called contact group - the United States, France, Britain, Germany, and Russia - met yesterday in Paris and urged an immediate cease-fire in the so-called Bihac ``pocket.''
The group, which remains divided over how to respond to the Serb advance, is preparing for ministerial level talks in Brussels on Friday aimed at a negotiated settlement to the crisis.
The Bosnian Serbs, who control 70 percent of Bosnia-Herzegovina, have rejected a contact group peace plan that would give them 49 percent of Bosnia.
On Sunday, Serb forces reportedly took 102 Dutch and British UN soldiers hostage in eastern and central Bosnia, bringing the number of peacekeepers under their control to 400. The hostage-taking comes in response to last week's limited NATO air strikes on Serb positions.
The commander of United Nations forces in Bosnia, Lt. Gen. Michael Rose, said the 24,000 peacekeepers may withdraw from Bosnia if the fighting escalates further. And Russia yesterday threatened to withdraw its peacekeepers from Bosnia.
In a grim sign for the Muslim-led Bosnian government, some Western officials are conceding victory to the Serbs and reportedly urging the Muslims to reopen peace talks with the Serbs - a move that at this stage is tantamount to capitulation.
``The Serbs ... have occupied 70 percent of the country. There's no prospect, as I see it, of the Muslims winning that back,'' US Defense Secretary William Perry said Sunday on NBC's ``Meet the Press.'' ``Therefore it seems that the Serbs have demonstrated military superiority on the ground.''
A diplomatic source in Zagreb said Mr. Perry's message to the Muslims and the contact group was clear:
``What he's saying is that basically the Serbs have won the war, and he doesn't see how the Serbs are going to give up any of their land,'' the source said. ``What he's saying is that the contact group needs to reconsider their plan.''
Analysts say Serb control of Bihac is crucial because it removes the last geographic barrier to unifying Serb-held sections of Bosnia and Croatia.
``For them, this is so important because it links up the whole of their [territory],'' says Paul Beaver, editor of the London-based Jane's Balkans Sentinel. ``It's the creation of `Greater Serbia'; it's the realization of their dream.''
Mr. Beaver says Serb suc-cesses may make them more willing to accept a new peace plan more to their liking. ``They are in such a strong position politically now, which will allow them to give up some land [in other areas] without fearing domestic problems,'' Beaver says.
But the Bosnian government appears far from conceding defeat. The bitterly fought war has frequently targeted civilians and featured atrocities on both sides, but the Serbs are generally considered responsible for more atrocities than the Muslims are. Muslim-led government forces are reportedly readying for an offensive in central Bosnia.
Assault on Bihac
Beaver estimates that 15,000 Bosnian Serb troops, 600 Croatian Serb troops, and 5,000 rebel Muslim troops opposed to the Bosnian government in Sarajevo are part of a coordinated assault against the Bihac pocket. Serb-controlled artillery in neighboring Croatia has also been used against the Muslim-led Bosnian government troops - known as the Fifth Corps - which had an estimated 8,000 men.
Bosnian Serb forces have declared the destruction of the Fifth Corps as their goal after the Muslims broke out of the pocket in an Oct. 10 offensive.
The Serb success in Bihac has led neighboring Croatia to threaten to rejoin the war. Serbs in Croatia seized control of one-third of the country in 1991.
A cease-fire was declared in 1992, but Croatia fears it may never regain its lost territory if Serbs in Bosnia and Croatia unite their territories in a ``Western Serb state.''
``That is a situation that Croatia cannot and will not tolerate,'' a senior Croatian official said last week in an interview.
``Quite frankly, we were ready to intervene [militarily] last week, but we were advised by our friends to give the international community another chance,'' the official said.
Diplomats assess effects
Western diplomats in Zagreb say the effects of the apparent Bosnian Serb victory in Bihac are wide-ranging.
``I think they [the Serbs] are trying to create a geographically complete, ethnically pure Western Serb state. I think it could have broader dangers,'' the diplomat said. ``The Western Serb state will want to have access to the sea, probably through [the Croatian port of] Zavdobic ... I don't know, they may try to ethnically cleanse [Bihac] now.''
``We bow to sheer force, we bow to fascism,'' Bosnian Prime Minister Haris Silajdzic said yesterday. ``This is worse than Munich [in 1938] ... this is happening after the genocide.''