NORMALCY may soon return to Sarajevo: food shortages, sniping, harassed peacekeepers, and a fading interest by the West in the besieged Bosnian capital and the UN's troubled role in the former Yugoslavia.
United Nations officials here say an opportunity to strengthen the peacekeeping in Bosnia is yet again being missed. As Bosnian Serbs slowly release UN hostages and allow aid convoys to enter surrounded Muslim enclaves, the officials are concerned that Western political will to be tough with the Serbs and use 10,000 new troops to set up permanent aid routes may be waning.
UN officials are expected to talk with Bosnian Serb leaders today to seek access for aid convoys to enter Sarajevo for the first time in two weeks. But with tank and mortar fire - the heaviest in a week - erupting here yesterday, it's unclear whether the Serbs will compromise.
UN officials say they will not back down on their demand for an unconditional release of the remaining 148 hostages. But other UN officials and diplomats, based in Sarajevo, believe a deal involving a tacit promise of no more NATO airstrikes may be cut.
The new talks are widening a split between the UN commander in Bosnia, British Gen. Rupert Smith, who favors confronting the Serbs with force, and mission headquarters in Zagreb, headed by UN Special Envoy Yasushi Akashi and French Gen. Bertrand Janvier, who reportedly favor more negotiations with the Serbs.
"Smith's line is you either go all the way or you get out," says a UN official here. "He's not being ignored. He's being told he's wrong."
UN leader's doubts
The surprise UN-Serb meeting comes as UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali has begun to question the emphasis being placed on the proposed rapid reaction force that Western leaders agreed on last Saturday.
"I believe, and all the military people believe, that the UN in Bosnia can do only a peacekeeping operation and mainly pay attention to humanitarian assistance," he told the BBC on Tuesday.
But UN officials say the inherent contradictions of the mission may not be addressed if the latest of many mini-crises in Sarajevo is quickly resolved.
Peacekeepers may continue to be expected to stay neutral, but use force if necessary to deliver humanitarian aid. The problem is that most of the humanitarian aid benefits the Muslim side, and peacekeepers, who don't have enough military power to take food in by force, must get permission from hostile Bosnian Serb forces to deliver the aid.
"It all comes back to the absurdity of this mission," says a UN official. "Where you have peacekeepers that are also supposed to be peacemakers, using force against the people we're supposed to get [aid convoy] permission from."
If the new talks succeed, the remaining hostages are released, and humanitarian aid again flows to Sarajevo through Serb territory, the clear winners will be the Bosnian Serbs and Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, diplomats say.
The failure to establish a UN-secured aid route into Sarajevo will allow Bosnian Serbs to cut off aid at will. And Serb forces will have regained control of hundreds of heavy weapons inside a 12.5 mile heavy-weapons exclusion zone around Sarajevo, and the West will have lost the political will to demand that the weapons be returned.
While Mr. Milosevic, enmeshed in delicate negotiations with a US diplomat to get economic sanctions lifted from his country in exchange for recognizing the Bosnian government, will appear to be the peacemaker.
"It does Milosevic no harm to be seen as the rescuer," says a Sarajevo-based Western diplomat, "and it does no harm to [Bosnian Serb leader Radovan] Karadzic to be seen as on better terms with Milosevic."
Milosevic officially cut off all aid to the Bosnian Serbs after they refused to accept an international peace plan that would divide Bosnia in half. Milosevic, who armed and financed the Bosnian Serbs in the past, claimed he had no influence over them and bitterly attacked Karadzic for opposing the plan.
But fuel and munitions have continued to be smuggled over the border, and the ease with which Milosevic was able to win release of the hostages has again raised the issue of who leads the Bosnian Serbs. Rumors of a split between Bosnian Serb military leader Gen. Ratko Mladic - a Milosevic ally - and Karadzic are circulating again.
"It just shows who's running the show," says the UN official. "I think [the releases show] a Milosevic-Mladic line is being activated."
The Bosnian government insists that a UN-secured route must be opened to Sarajevo and the status quo of requesting Serb permission is no longer acceptable. "They should act now. They have extra force and they should use it," Bosnian Vice President Ejup Ganic told reporters Tuesday. "It's an academic exercise until convoys use those main roads."
UN officials in Sarajevo agree, calling the new talk "appeasement" and disastrous for the UN and its credibility.
"We'll go back to a worse situation than we had which was already pretty bad," says one UN official. "It's just going to return to the status quo ante minus."