West's Wavering Lets Serbs Dictate

Serbs largely control access to safe areas, routes for aid convoys

IN a remarkable two-week period, the international community has gone from calling the Bosnian Serbs terrorists to asking their permission for 10,000 United Nations reinforcements to arrive.

If the scenario sounds familiar - it is. The UN mission, after briefly showing signs of a more "robust" approach in Bosnia, has returned to muddling, according to disappointed Sarajevo-based UN officials and diplomats.

UN officials, who ruled out offensive military operations for the time being on Saturday, say that whether Sarajevo and other surrounded Muslim enclaves receive food, six Muslim UN-declared "safe areas" are indiscriminately shelled, and a US-troop led UN pullout from Bosnia occurs, now largely depends on the Bosnian Serbs.

"It's their call," UN spokesman Alexander Ivanko said Saturday. "We'll have to wait and see."

A series of elaborate safeguards erected by the West since 1993 to slow the war and protect civilians in Bosnia has quickly unraveled in a matter of weeks.

The problem, frustrated UN officials here say, is that Western capitals remain unwilling to take significant casualties in Bosnia and are again talking through both sides of their mouths.

The same countries - the United States, Britain, France, and Germany - that continue to loudly call for tougher action in Bosnia when they are at a NATO meeting, quietly vote for more muddling at the UN Security Council. "They tend to talk tough within their own nations," a UN official says. "But when they get down to the technicalities of coordinating international action, it's the lowest common denominator."

*A week ago, Western defense ministers agreed to send 10,000 additional troops to Bosnia to protect UN peacekeepers and assist them in carrying out their mandate of delivering humanitarian aid. French officials were vowing the establishment of a UN-secured land route into Sarajevo and three surrounded Muslim enclaves.

But British Prime Minister John Major, whose troops will make up the bulk of the force, emphasized Saturday that the reinforcements were only to be used to come to the aid of peacekeepers that have come under attack. British Defense Secretary Malcolm Rifkind said at a NATO meeting Thursday that if the Serbs did not give their "consent" to the new force, a UN withdrawal was likely.

*Two weeks ago, NATO airstrikes were the main weapon UN commanders had to punish Serbs for attacking peacekeepers or shelling civilians. But instead of being cowed by the airstrikes, the Bosnian Serbs took more than 350 UN peacekeepers hostage.

UN officials say with the Serbs still holding 145 UN hostages, further NATO airstrikes have been largely ruled out. Even if the Serbs release the remaining hostages, UN officials fear that NATO airstrikes will lead to more hostage taking. "It's still an option," UN spokesman Ivanko told reporters, "although ... not an extremely likely one."

*Two weeks ago, a 12.5 mile heavy-weapons exclusion zone was being loosely maintained around Sarajevo. Established after more than 60 Sarajevans were killed in the 1994 marketplace massacre, the zone placed Bosnian Serb heavy weapons in nine UN-policed storage sites.

The Serb seizure of four weapons from the storage sites prompted the UN commander in Bosnia to order airstrikes on May 25 and 26. Instead of returning the weapons, the Bosnian Serbs seized 284 of them, and even have fired some of the weapons into the city from the grounds of the storage sites.

UN officials say unless the West is again willing to threaten massive airstrikes, it will be nearly impossible to regain control of the heavy weapons or reestablish the exclusion zone.

*Two weeks ago, Sarajevo and five other Muslim cities were UN-declared "safe areas." If the Serbs shelled civilian targets in the city, a retaliatory NATO airstrike would be ordered.

A day after the last NATO airstrike, the Bosnian Serbs fired a shell into the popular cafe district of the Muslim safe area of Tuzla. More than 70 people were killed in the attack.

UN officials ruled out a retaliatory airstrike, concerned that peacekeepers being held would be harmed. UN officials say that for now, the UN safe areas are "under review."

*Until April 8, the Sarajevo airport brought in more than 50 percent of the humanitarian aid here. No flights have landed at the airport for two months because the Bosnian Serbs refuse to guarantee the safety of incoming flights.

The UN will now have to rely on Bosnian Serb-controlled land convoys to supply the city, where food is in short supply and UN peacekeepers are on rations. UN convoys have been repeatedly fired upon, delayed, and pilfered by the Serbs.

UN High Commissioner for Refugees officials, faced with a Serb ultimatum that UN troops will no longer be allowed to escort convoys, agreed on Friday to allow aid convoys to pass through Serb-held territories with only a Bosnian Serb police escort.

A tour of water lines in Sarajevo, where the Bosnian Serbs have cut off electricity, gas, and running-water supplies for two weeks, found few residents who were surprised by the wavering of the international community.

Complaining that an international arms embargo, which the US Congress voted to lift last week, has actually lengthened the war, residents say a cruel form of Western-imposed self-help is being carried out in the Balkans.

"I'm not surprised. [The West] seems powerless...," says Almir Luckin, a wounded Bosnian soldier. "Nothing is going to change, unless we do it ourselves."

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