Bosnia's Rapidly Changing 'Game'

Blue helmets now primed to shoot; the political process is absent

THE United Nations intervention in the former Yugoslavia has been reduced to a tragic absurdity. And the UN as a collective entity is at sixes and sevens with its most important members over what to do.

There is no cease-fire in Bosnia and no prospect of reaching one. The Bosnian Serb leader, Radovan Karadzic, has trumped NATO's airstrike ace by taking UN peacekeepers hostage. He can take more so long as UNPROFOR, the UN Protection Force, is scattered around the countryside in small groups.

There is also no longer a political process based on the concept of peaceful settlement, which the UN went into Bosnia to serve. The last plan was that of the so-called "contact" group (the United States, Russia, Britain, France, and Germany). It offered the Bosnian Serbs, who form 30 percent of Bosnia's population, 49 percent of its territory. But they have already taken 70 percent and see no reason to back down.

The US made the final pitch for that plan, parking a senior diplomat in Belgrade for weeks to reason with Serbia's President, Slobodan Milosevic. He offered a suspension of the economic sanctions that are pinching Serbia if Mr. Milosevic endorsed the contact group plan and recognized an independent Bosnia. But Milosevic kept raising his price as he saw Mr. Karadzic winning out while he gained brownie points for himself by arranging the release of UN hostages. On June 6, the American left Belgrade empty-handed.

On the other side of the fence, UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the nations that are contributing troops to UNPROFOR, and the NATO allies are humiliated.

But they have responded in different ways. Britain and France, with the largest contingents, decided that their soldiers should not be sitting ducks. Without asking the UN Security Council, they began sending heavily armed reinforcements to Bosnia. Britain alerted an air mobile brigade of 5,000 men for service there in an emergency. France is joining with Britain and the Netherlands to set up an international brigade in Bosnia by the end of June. All will be blue helmets, nominally under the UN.

THERE is also talk of a French-Dutch rapid reaction brigade to be stationed in Croatia. Its status with Croatia and relationship with the UN are unclear. Then there is the small, powerful US force, 3,500 men with attack and transport helicopters, moving from Germany to Italy. No blue helmets they, but an essential act of solidarity with NATO.

France and the US have spoken of the rapid reaction force as not just protecting UNPROFOR, but also opening a land corridor to besieged Sarajevo. This could impress the Bosnian Serbs.

It has already alarmed Mr. Boutros-Ghali. He insists that military action be confined narrowly to self-defense, albeit including air power. The secretary general wants UNPROFOR stripped of tasks it has been given over time that go beyond its original mandate: humanitarian relief and negotiating a cease-fire, conditional upon acceptance by both sides. The Western allies feel this has lost touch with reality.

The security council will now consider whether to enlarge the mandate or simply the size of UNPROFOR, which is more likely. If, in a few months, the reinforced, rapidly reacting force cannot stabilize things in Bosnia and thereby open the door to another political effort, it will be pulled out. The struggle in the former Yugoslavia and the problem of helping its wretched victims will enter a new phase. So will the UN in its relations with an increasingly hostile US Congress. And, certainly, the terms of UN peacekeeping operations will never be the same.

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