Loss of Another UN 'Safe Zone' May Bring US Forces Into Bosnia

THE future of the 39-month-old United Nations mission in Bosnia remains in grave peril following the fall of the UN-protected Muslim enclave of Srebrenica to an unrepentant Bosnian Serb army.

For the West, the stakes have risen ever higher.

The lives of UN peacekeepers are now at risk as summer military offensives intensify across Bosnia. Yet a UN pullout would require a massive NATO military effort - including the dispatch of some 25,000 United States troops to a nation President Clinton has called ''a shooting gallery.''

Western leaders are leaning toward the continuation of the troubled United Nations effort. Withdrawal of peacekeepers could cause a massive humanitarian crisis among Bosnian civilians. But the fall of another safe zone, such as embattled Zepa, might yet trigger a UN retreat.

''There is some determination'' by countries with troops in Bosnia to stay the course, White House spokesman Mike McCurry said. ''There is some sense that the [UN] presence is vital to helping relieve the humanitarian situation ... which is now surely worsening.''

The UN created six safe areas in Serb-held Bosnia-Herzegovina in June 1993 as sanctuaries for the thousands of Muslim refugees forced from their homes by the Bosnian Serb army. The population of Srebrenica, for instance, swelled from 4,000 to 26,000, turning the tiny mining town into a giant refugee camp.

Then, on Tuesday, 1,500 Bosnian Serb troops backed by tanks and artillery flouted a UN warning of NATO air power and slipped past Dutch UN troops positioned to protect the enclave. NATO jets bombed the advancing Serbs and destroyed two tanks, but the defiant Serbs steamrolled into town.

Srebrenica's refugees went on the run for a second time. The entire city and its surrounding villages fled the Serb onslaught and sought shelter in abandoned factories, barns, and fields around the Dutch UN base in Potocari, three miles north of the town.

In the wake of the fall, the UN Security Council passed a resolution demanding Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali use all necessary means to restore the ''safe areas'' immediately.

But the resolution was not likely to do much. Restoring the enclave by force would necessitate bringing in hundreds, possibly thousands of UN troops and heavy weaponry.

''To reclaim Srebrenica, you'd have to be prepared to fight ... and there is no political will to do that,'' a UN official says. ''The best we could hope for is to negotiate with the Serbs.''

Negotiating with the Serbs to reclaim the enclave also appeared unlikely. As the resolution was drafted, Bosnian Serb leader Gen. Ratko Mladic plowed into the Potocari camp with a procession of dilapidated buses and demanded the refugees board them. ''We will not take no for an answer,'' he reportedly said.

Women and children boarded the buses and were later dumped six miles from the government border. Deprived of food for as long as 24 hours, they were forced to trek six hours through no-man's land in the dark to Kladanj, in government-held territory. All men over the age of 16 and some much younger were brought by General Mladic to be interviewed for possible war crimes in Bratunac, just north of the Srebrenica enclave.

French President Jacques Chirac demanded that the ''safe area'' be reestablished and pledged to supply French troops to do the job, but he left the decision up to the UN, which does not have the will or the way to retake Srebrenica.

Mr. Chirac stood alone in his enthusiasm. British Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind stood back and said the West should not raise false hopes in Bosnia. UN officials in Bosnia conceded that the ''safe area'' concept was dead.

''If the Serbs want to overrun the enclaves, who is going to stop them?'' asks a UN official. ''The Serbs have 50,000 troops with a clear objective of what they want to achieve. What do we have?''

As Yasushi Akashi, the secretary general's special envoy to ex-Yugoslavia quietly acknowledges, it would be impossible for the UN to militarily intervene. The members of the ''contact group'' (Britain, France, US, Germany, and Russia) held an emergency meeting to discuss the crisis, after which they pledged to continue their efforts to seek political solution. Because the plan proscribes enlarging the enclaves of Srebrenica and Zepa and linking them together, however, it is unclear how the plan will proceed.

When little Srebrenica was overrun, it was protected by a mere 450 lightly armed Dutch troops, who proved no match for the advancing Serbs.

Mladic has said he wants to wipe out the enclaves and then divert his troops for battles elsewhere with the Bosnian government Army, which began an offensive to lift the siege of Sarajevo last month. Bosnian Serb television has already reported the Serb army was poised to take Zepa, Srebrenica's southern neighbor. A tiny enclave with a population swollen from 4,500 to 30,000, Zepa is protected by 90 Ukrainian peacekeepers. ''Let's face it,'' a UN official said. ''If the Serbs want Zepa, it's lost.''

Conquering the safe areas of Sarajevo, Gorazde, Bihac, and Tuzla would prove more challenging for the Bosnian Serb army because they are reinforced by Bosnian government troops, UN official say. They acknowledged that the small UN presence in each of the pockets no longer functioned as a deterrent to the Bosnian Serbs.

In light of the collapse of the weapons-exclusion zone around Sarajevo last month and the fact that it can no longer protect the ''safe areas,'' UN officials admitted the mission was leaning toward withdrawal.

But if the UN were to withdraw, it would likely encounter resistance from the Bosnian government as illustrated by the fall of Srebrenica. When the Bosnian Serbs overran the town, UN observers attempted to flee their posts, but were surrounded by Bosnian government forces and prohibited from leaving.

The UN has conceded it cannot do much to help Bosnia, but it is still the only show in town and the Bosnian government cannot afford to lose it.

Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic stood up the day after the fall of Srebrenica and asked the UN to either restore the ''safe area'' or stop making false promises.

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