Serbs Rev Up Offensive Against Bihac and UN

SERB forces have stepped up attacks on Velika Kladusa in northwest Bosnia-Herzegovina as part of a renewed effort to crush the Muslim-led Bosnian Army and force a frustrated United Nations to pull out of Bosnia, analysts say. The latest Western efforts to restart peace talks are simply being ignored here on the ground.

Hundreds of artillery and mortar shells hit the town each of the past several days, a UN spokesman says. On Monday, Serb batteries fired blasts every 45 seconds, trucks loaded with ammunition streamed into the area, and tank tracks scarred nearby fields and roads.

``Their goal is to get the UN out before the West has the ability to arm the Bosnian Army,'' says Paul Beaver, editor of the London-based Jane's Balkans Sentinel. ``They think they have six to eight months to crush the Muslim Army before someone - probably the Americans - arms the Muslims.''

UN officials say Serb forces from Croatia have massed and are carrying out the assault on Velika Kladusa. Fighting to the south near the UN-declared safe haven in Bihac town has also increased.

In what may be an indication of things to come, UN officials yesterday said they asked for permission from Serb forces to withdraw 300 to 600 of the 1,200 Bangladeshi peacekeepers stationed in three different areas of the Bihac enclave.

British Defense Minister Malcolm Rifkind warned after a meeting with UN officials in Zagreb Tuesday that British troops will be withdrawn if it becomes impossible for them to carry out their mission.

``I think we have to look at the overall picture,'' Mr. Rifkind said, ``and realize that there are large problems in the delivery of aid.''

The blocking of UN aid convoys and the detention of 349 peacekeepers continued this week, despite a promise from Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic that all peacekeepers would be released.

On Friday, a Bangladeshi peacekeeper in the Bihac pocket who had been denied medical treatment died. And an attempt on Tuesday to swap a UN observer who became ill in Banja Luka failed when the officer and his replacement were both seized by Serb forces in Banja Luka, a Muslim enclave in north-central Bosnia. A convoy with 60 tons of humanitarian aid to Gorazde, a besieged Muslim enclave in eastern Bosnia, was blocked by the Serbs.

``They have a lot of cunning and guile, and they know exactly what to do and how to frustrate UNPROFOR [UN Protection Forces],'' Mr. Beaver says. ``What they really are intent on is a withdrawal, and they'll do whatever they have to to make it happen.''

Forcing the UN to pull out would be a gamble for the Bosnian Serbs. While it would probably allow them to take the four Muslim enclaves of Bihac, Gorazde, Srebrenica, and Zepa, it would also allow the West to arm the Muslims and bomb Serb forces without fear of retaliation against peacekeepers on the ground.

ANDREW Duncan, Balkans analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, says the Bosnian Serbs may not want control of Muslim enclaves packed with thousands of civilians.

``It could be very counterproductive for them to look out for all of the people in [safe areas],'' he says. ``It makes sense for them to try to destroy as many soldiers as possible, but I don't believe it would be politically wise of them to take [safe areas].''

For the UN, it is a lose-lose situation, according to a Western diplomat.

``You can't pull out, and you can't stay. If you pull out, you're hurting [the Muslims], the very people you were bound to help,'' the diplomat said.

``If you don't pull out, then the Bosnian Serbs will just continue to block convoys and ratchet down on the Muslims [in the enclaves], and there's nothing the UN can do about it. Either way they lose.''

Beaver expects the Bosnian Serbs to ``play with'' some peace initiatives, but Serb efforts to harass the UN will intensify.

``What it's going to take [for a pullout] is a feeling of frustration in the West that nothing is going to work,'' Beaver says.

``A realization by politicians that if you let the two sides fight instead of prolonging the agony you may end up with fewer dead people in the end,'' he says.

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