FOR the past 2-1/2 years, Bosnian Serb soldiers have been allowed to steal Muslims' land, kill their sons, systematically rape their mothers and daughters, and force them to move out of most of their own country.
Now, Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic - eager to reinvent the Bosnian Serb image in the Western media - is talking peace. But for the Muslim-led Bosnian government, peace could mean being backed into a corner. A dangerous transition is occurring.
An international community weary of war could shift its image of the Muslims from the war's victims to obstructionists of peace, while the Bosnian Serbs and their allies use a loophole in a one-week cease-fire brokered by former President Jimmy Carter to increase their attack on Muslim forces in the surrounded Bihac pocket in northwest Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Under intense pressure from Western nations eager to get out of the quagmire in Bosnia, the Muslim-led government accepted the talks last week.
``I think President Carter started with a lot of momentum,'' Bosnian Vice President Ejup Ganic sheepishly told reporters. ``We don't want to discourage what he is doing here.''
With Carter's visit, the West gave up its ``take it or leave it'' condition that Bosnian Serbs accept the ``contact group'' peace plan before negotiations begin on a long-term war settlement. The Serbs have not accepted the plan, which would force them to give up about one-third of the land they have conquered. But they did agree to a week of talks on a four-month cessation of hostilities.
Already the Muslims are looking like the ones not interested in peace. Protesting continued attacks on Bihac by Croatian Serb and rebel Muslim forces that are not technically part of the cease-fire agreement, the Bosnian government has threatened to end the talks.
``If these attacks continue, I state that the cease-fire doesn't exist,'' Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic said in broadcast Dec. 25.
Bosnian government officials called for NATO action against the Croatian Serbs and rebel Muslims who are also harassing aid convoys. But to Americans and Europeans, the Muslims' calls for help have almost become numbing. And this time, the Muslim calls for help are being accompanied by footage of Bosnian Serb leader Mr. Karadzic meeting with Carter and calling for peace.
For the Muslim-led Bosnian government, the lopsided cease-fire is part of a long pattern of giving without receiving. A United Nations arms embargo has prevented the Muslims - who with their Croat allies can field twice as many soldiers as the Bosnian Serbs - from arming themselves and winning.
The Bosnian government mantra has long been ``don't send United States troops to save us, send US weapons we can use to save ourselves.'' But the UN, along with Britain and France, has replied that adding weapons to the conflict will only increase bloodshed and make UN peacekeepers targets for Serb retaliation.
So far this week, UN officials have discounted the Bosnian government claims, saying only sporadic fighting has continued in the area. Bosnian government officials seem well-aware that they face a public relations crisis and a new enemy - a smiling, cordial, almost reasonable-looking Bosnian Serb leader offering a cease-fire with one hand and finishing off Bihac with another.
Images of Muslims being shipped out of Serb territories in boxcars, Muslim victims of mass rape by Serb forces, and starving Muslim prisoners in Serb death camps may be fading from Western memories.
``It's been lies everyday for 2-1/2 years ... we've heard all this before,'' Bosnian Vice President Ganic said last week. ``We can't allow the momentum to be created that will destroy the contact-group peace plan.''