THE role of Serbia's president as a peacemaker in Bosnia appears to be an elaborate political ruse.
United States officials say President Slobodan Milosevic has covertly provided military support and political cover to the current Bosnian Serb offensives against United Nations ''safe areas.''
Speaking anonymously, US officials say it is no longer possible to disregard Mr. Milosevic's role in the attacks on the Muslim enclaves of Srebrenica, Zepa, and Bihac.
''There are strong indications that the activities under way are not being done without some support from Serbia,'' one official says.
Adds a senior administration official: ''There is no question that Milosevic supported and continues to support the Bosnian Serbs.''
The officials' comments were some of the most explicit yet linking Milosevic to a flow of strategic supplies that US intelligence agencies have been tracking from Serbia to the Bosnian Serb army in recent months. The Clinton administration has chosen, however, to ignore its own intelligence reports. Instead, it has supported an easing of the UN sanctions on Serbia as a way of encouraging Milosevic to cooperate in the peace process. The sanctions were loosened in September after Milosevic announced he was cutting off supplies to the Bosnian Serbs.
The disclosures also appear to raise grave doubts about the soundness of a US-backed international peace initiative that has been built on Milosevic's professed desire to find an equitable political settlement to Europe's worst bloodshed since World War II. Instead, they point to his continued pursuit of the dream of unifying Bosnian Serb-held areas with Serb-inhabited areas of Croatia into ''Greater Serbia'' - including Serbia and Montenegro.
By appearing to cooperate in the peace effort , Milosevic is angling to win an end to UN sanctions that have devastated Serbia's economy. A new deal reportedly reached with Milosevic by European Union envoy Carl Bildt would do just that.
A second approach, meanwhile, involves covertly aiding the Bosnian Serb military chief, Gen. Ratko Mladic, to consolidate his territorial gains. The pair apparently believe this must be achieved quickly before Western states succumb to growing pressure to lift a UN arms embargo on the Muslim-led Bosnian government's numerically superior Army, officials say.
US officials, however, say that while Milosevic talked peace in recent weeks with Mr. Bildt, his Yugoslav Army was sending military hardware and fuel across the Drina River to the Bosnian Serb forces that overran Srebrenica on July 11 and nearby Zepa this week.
''We have indications that the [Yugoslav Army] is providing quantities of supplies such as fuel and ammunition and some light weapons'' to the Bosnian Serbs, one official says. He declined to elaborate. But given the Bosnian Serbs' chronic gasoline and diesel shortages, the disclosure suggests that fuel from Serbia helped power the tanks that shelled the enclaves and a fleet of buses and trucks that the Bosnian Serbs used to expel some 20,000 Muslims from Srebrenica.
Yugoslav Army special forces were also involved in the Srebrenica and Zepa assaults, the official says. ''Limited numbers of [Yugoslav] special forces personnel are believed to be there in an advisory and training capacity, and in a combat capacity if necessary,'' he says.
He declined again to elaborate. But other sources have previously alleged the presence in Bosnia of troops from an elite Yugoslav parachute regiment based in Serbia's southern city of Nis. Milosevic claims that all regular Yugoslav Army troops left Bosnia in May 1992.
''Mladic has been regularly meeting Milosevic in Belgrade,'' says a senior US official. ''It is inconceivable that Milosevic did not know about and did not tacitly approve of the attacks on Srebrenica and Zepa.'' He adds that Serbia pays the salaries of ''dozens'' of Bosnian Serb officers and its air defenses are integrated with their system.
The involvements of Milosevic and the Yugoslav Army do not end with Srebrenica and Zepa, say Western officials in the Croatian capital of Zagreb. They say a senior Yugoslav Army officer, Gen. Mile Mrksic, is playing a leading role in an assault on Bihac, a UN ''safe area'' of 200,000 Muslims on Bosnia's northwest border with Croatia.
GENERAL Mrksic was reportedly picked by Milosevic to lead Croatia's rebel Serbs after they lost territory to the Croatian Army in May. Mrksic built an elite ''battle group'' of 2,000 men and dozens of tanks that is believed to be led by Yugoslav Army officers. It has crossed into the Bihac enclave with rebel Serbs from Croatia, Western officials say. Renegade Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Serb forces are also taking part in the attack.
''Don't forget the man [Mrksic] who is in charge of this,'' says a Western diplomat. ''Milosevic must somehow be involved.'' US officials say another indication of Serbia's role in the UN ''safe area'' attacks was the participation of Mladic in Milosevic's negotiations with Bildt in Belgrade last week. They say that Mladic's presence shows that he and Milosevic were coordinating political and military actions.
Insisting it is now determined to protect Bosnian civilians, NATO warned yesterday it would launch preemptive and prolonged airstrikes if Bosnian Serbs advance on the UN ''safe area'' of Gorazde. It also urged the UN to delegate its powers for ordering airstrikes to military commanders on the scene.
r Staff writer David Rohde in Bosnia contributed to this story.
Belgrade Undermines West's Peace Efforts by Aiding Bosnian Serbs