Tables Turn in Bosnia As Oil-Shy Serbs Suffer In Muslim-Led Offensive

SERB peace offers and an apparently successful Bosnian government offensive are producing a rare commodity in Bosnia -- optimism.

United Nations officials cite significant military gains by Muslim-led government forces, a weekend peace offer by Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, and Bosnian Serb shelling attacks on Muslim civilians as evidence that the military tide could be turning in the lopsided conflict.

UN officials say Bosnian Serbs may be running out of fuel. At a recent meeting with the UN, Bosnian Serb military commander Ratko Mladic went to unusual lengths to broker an agreement for fuel to be given to his forces.

''He was very interested in cutting a deal that would give us access to the eastern enclaves in exchange for some fuel,'' says a UN official.

After declaring on Friday that his forces were readying for a counterattack that would ''destroy'' their enemies, Mr. Karadzic stunned observers Saturday by calling for direct talks with the Bosnian government to end the fighting.

Serb forces then launched coordinated shelling attacks on the Muslim civilians in Tuzla, Travnik, Mostar, and Gorazde on Saturday. Fourteen civilian casualties were reported in Mostar and Gorazde, including one death.

Western diplomats and UN officials cautioned that the Serbs' peace offer is simply an effort to buy time. ''Now Karadzic is the peacemaker?'' scoffs one Western diplomat. ''I don't trust him.''

Shattering a four-month truce set to expire May 1, Bosnian government forces have picked up two miles or more of territory from Bosnian Serb forces in two simultaneous offensives in central Bosnia. The government forces took control of a strategic communications tower near Travnik and surrounded 120 to 130 Serb soldiers defending another crucial mountain-top communications tower north of Tuzla.

Both offensives threaten Bosnia Serb resupply routes, and the operation in Tuzla could indicate that the Bosnian government is preparing to take the crucial Posavina corridor linking Serb forces in eastern and western Bosnia.

UN officials say a Bosnian Serb fuel shortage is significant because it indicates that the long-term Western strategy in Bosnia may be working. Western economic sanctions on Serbia prompted Serbia to officially cut off all supplies to Serb forces in Bosnia last August.

While some supplies are clearly getting through, the cut-off may be taking a toll on the Bosnian Serbs, who have refused to accept a Western peace plan that would force them to give up 30 percent of the territory they now hold.

Observers say a peace proposal announced Thursday by Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic and Russia, and later signed on to by the United States, may also increase pressure on Karadzic.

Under the proposal, Mr. Milosevic would recognize certain constitutional provisions that would further isolate the Bosnian Serbs in exchange for a partial lifting of UN economic sanctions.

''I don't think Karadzic is strong enough to withstand this,'' the UN official says. ''Arguably, his back is up against the wall.''

UN officials say time may be the only measure of whether the tide is truly turning in Bosnia. A Bosnian government offensive launched from the surrounded Bihac enclave in northwestern Bosnia last fall was quickly erased by a successful Serb counter-offensive.

''[Karadzic] could be trying to make them [Bosnian Muslims] feel comfortable before he springs something on them,'' says the UN official. ''The one thing we can't say is whether they [the Muslim forces] will be able to hold them back.''

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