Where's the Exit? West Looks For a Quiet Retreat in Bosnia

THE future of the UN's largest, most ambitious, and most deadly peacekeeping operation may now rest on how US and European leaders read public opinion toward the war.

With 162 peacekeepers killed, more than $3 billion spent, and the worst fighting in 15 months having ravaged Sarajevo this week, UN Secretary General Boutros-Boutros Ghali suggested a reduction in the UN mission in Bosnia on Tuesday.

His statement could spark renewed debate in Washington on a proposal by Senate majority leader Bob Dole to lift the UN arms embargo to help the Muslim-led government against Serbian attacks in Bosnia.

Any reduction of UN protection must, however, be combined with a lifting of the embargo, said Muhamed Sacirbey, Bosnia's UN ambassador. Just reducing the UN role would be ''another way to take something away from the Bosnian people without giving us the right to defend ourselves,'' he told reporters in New York.

With the war now posing a stark choice on whether to put up or shut up militarily, and the US still unwilling to commit ground troops, the West appears to be on the verge of a quiet surrender.

The extent of a partial UN withdrawal will largely depend on what is politically palatable in Britain, France, and the US.Britain and France contribute the largest number of troops nations to UN forces.

''Will the capitals have the stomach to do this?'' says a senior Western official. ''What political price would be paid if the charge is made that they're abandoning the Eastern [Bosnian] enclaves or Sarajevo? Will there be a domestic uproar, or do people think this whole thing has gotten so messy that we should get out?''

At the center of the debate are the more than 130,000 civilians trapped in three surrounded Muslim enclaves in eastern Bosnia. UN officials say the most likely change in the mission would be the abandonment of the safe-area concept established by the UN in June 1993 and a sharp reduction in the UN troop presence in the three enclaves.

Requests for pullouts

The British government recently informed the UN that it would like to pull its 400 troops out of the surrounded Muslim enclave in Gorazde by September. The Dutch government has also said it is interested in withdrawing its 400 troops in the enclave of Srebrenica.

Approximately 150 Ukrainian troops are stationed in the third eastern enclave, Zepa. Their government has not requested a withdrawal yet, but observer say a crucial precedent will be set if no troops can be found to replace British units.

''Mission creep can simply reverse itself,'' says the Western official. ''A UN presence in Gorazde disappears without the Security Council taking action.''

UN officials say the concept of safe zones, which have been attacked by Serbs and sometimes used to stage Bosnian government offensives, was flawed from the beginning; the zones should have been demilitarized of Bosnian forces and larger UN forces deployed to protect them. But Boutros-Ghali's initial June 1993 request for 30,000 troops to protect the safe areas was reduced to 7,600 because not enough troops could be found.

Fighting has steadily increased in Bosnia since the Bosnian government broke a four-month cease-fire in March. Three French peacekeepers have been killed by snipers in the last month and Boutros-Ghali's move is seen as an attempt to head off a large-scale withdrawal by frustrated troop-contributing nations and the complete disintegration of the UN mission.

In Sarajevo, a 12 1/2-mile heavy-weapons exclusion zone, established after a March 1994 shelling attack in the city's market that killed more than 60 Sarajevans, is largely considered a joke by the warring parties. UN officials have repeatedly refused to call in NATO air strikes following Serb violations, out of fear that widely dispersed and lightly armed peacekeepers will then face retaliation.

In an indication of how much the weapons-exclusion zone has disintegrated, Bosnian Serbs seized heavy weapons -- and then fired on Sarajevo with them -- from the grounds of a UN heavy-weapons storage site on Tuesday. Veteran Serb units, armed with tanks and heavy artillery according to UN observers, have also reportedly moved into the exclusion zone.

Zone violator

The Bosnian government is also violating the zone by establishing mortar positions in some densely populated neighborhoods -- including one near UN headquarters. Bosnian generals have been talking openly of launching an offensive to break out of Sarajevo, and attacks that it launched on Tuesday focused on two key supply roads that would be the first step in such an operation.

''This is more and more of a two-way military contest that makes peacekeeping more and more difficult to do,'' says the Western official. ''The [UN] military needs to be put in a more viable position. Right now, they're not able to do much except sit around and take incoming fire.''

Bosnian government officials in Sarajevo, increasingly frustrated by the failure of Western diplomacy and the continued arms embargo, scoffed at the possibility of a reduced UN mandate.

''The only [further mandate] reduction that can take place,'' said Bosnian Prime Minister Haris Silajdzic, ''is if they dig a bunker for themselves and hide there.''

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