Bosnia Showdown Brings West to War's Brink

One option: beef up UN in fewer areas

BY taking scores of United Nations peacekeeping troops hostage in recent days, Bosnian Serb leaders have shown that the UN must be ready to back up isolated airstrikes on Serb targets with more muscle.

This aggressive response appears to have caught the US and its ''contact group'' allies off-guard. Western diplomats are now scrambling to decide what, if anything, can be done to strengthen peacekeepers' positions without turning them into full combatants.

Withdrawal of peacekeeping units -- itself a risky operation -- remains an option, though an unlikely one. ''Somebody will have to tell us what's our next step,'' said Alexander Ivanko, a UN Protection Force (UNPROFOR) spokesman.

The initial reaction of the United States, Britain, and France has been to rattle swords and send more force toward the region.

A three-ship US Marine amphibious task force, with 2,000 troops, has been positioned in the Adriatic, off the coast of the former Yugoslavia, according to Pentagon officials. British Prime Minister John Major has ordered 1,200 more soldiers into Bosnia itself, and placed another 4,500 on standby. France's President Jacques Chirac dispatched the aircraft carrier Foch to the Adriatic, with 2,000 troops, combat aircraft, and heavy equipment aboard.

This quick buildup reflects a Western decision that they will try a new, broader peackeeping strategy in the region, at least for the short term. This strategy, the British government said in a May 28 statement, would be to concentrate blue-helmeted peacekeeping units into fewer areas, and to preempt ''a further downward spiral in the war.''

US wants UN to stay

The US government, for its part, favors a strengthening of the peacekeeping operation in the Balkans. As of this writing, Secretary of State Warren Christopher is in the Netherlands meeting with his contact group counterparts in an attempt to keep France and other restive nations from making good on threats to withdraw their own troops from Bosnian peacekeeping service.

Mr. Christopher is attempting to assuage those countries with peacekeepers there and formulate a plan that would regroup the blue helmets in Bosnia without abandoning major Muslim enclaves.

The White House has a strong political incentive to push for a continuation of the UN mission. It has promised to send US troops to help with any pullout from the region, and the numbers involved would be large: as many as 25,000 US military personnel.

Yet the US public, despite years of saturation media coverage of the brutal Balkans war, has shown little interest in intervening there in any form.

''The American people are not prepared for 20,000 to 25,000 Americans to go over there,'' presidential candidate Sen. Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana told Cable News Network over the weekend.

Some US responsibility

Yet the US must now bear some of the blame for the position the UN finds itself in. Clinton administration officials have been some of the strongest voices calling for more concerted military action, including airstrikes, to counter Bosnian Serb aggression.

Other contact group nations, particularly France and Britain, have long worried that their peacekeeping troops would be vulnerable to retaliation for such action.

The worst of these worries now appears to have been realized, as hundreds of peacekeepers throughout Bosnia are now kept as human shields at Serb gunpoint.

Independent military analysts see problems ahead for the nations that have contributed to the UN peace force.

Jonathan Eyal, director of studies at London's Royal United Services Institute, said the capture of British hostages had ''confirmed the worst scenario of the most pessimistic British government ministers.''

''Launching a rescue operation for the hostages is virtually impossible,'' Mr. Eyal said. ''The British troops could be regrouped in central Bosnia, but this will intensify the fighting. If new airstrikes are launched, the Serbs will hide the hostages, leaving governments to guess whether they are alive or dead.''

More meetings

Against this background a complex series of high-level diplomatic meetings was attempting to plot further Western strategy. NATO's North Atlantic Council met in Noordwijk, the Netherlands, while the five-nation contact group -- Britain, France, Russia, the United States, and Germany -- was meeting in The Hague.

UN officials, frustrated by their difficult mission in the Balkans, were pleading for direction from a world that has alternately raged at Serb brutality and recoiled from deeper involvement in the Balkans.

''We hope that we will get some guidance and backing,'' Mr. Ivanko said on Sunday. ''A lot of thought will have to go into our next step, because it will probably be the most important step the international community makes in this century.''

The strengthening of peacekeeping forces in the region would not necessarily indicate a desire by the international community to stay the course.

Blue-hat UN troops would have to be concentrated in fewer areas and protected by more guns prior to pull-out. Perhaps a long-term strategy of withdrawal has already begun.

''Withdrawal remains a possibility. It is not desirable, but it remains a possibility and of course the reinforcements we are sending would be useful if we came to the conclusion that it was necessary to withdraw,'' British Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd told reporters.

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