Defiance by Bosnian Serbs Brings More NATO Strikes

Bosnian Serb-held suburbs of Sarajevo are key targets as West tries to relieve the besieged capital.

MORE than a week after the launch of NATO's largest military operation, a risky American attempt at gunboat diplomacy by air is producing mixed results in Bosnia.

A bombing campaign aimed at hurting, but not destroying, the Bosnian Serb military machine has knocked out phone service and television broadcasts in Serb territory. Bosnian Serb shelling attacks on Sarajevo have sharply lessened, and UN supply trucks are trickling into the Bosnian capital.

But in trying to coax the Bosnian Serbs to the bargaining table and fully break the siege of Sarajevo, the ''stick'' of more than 1,800 NATO sorties and 1,300 shells fired by the UN's Rapid Reaction Force has brought snail-like progress and some worrying developments.

NATO appears to be in for a lengthy, and expensive bombing campaign. Despite apparent disarray and division between their political and military leaders, the Bosnian Serbs appear to be hunkering down and banking on the fact that US, Russian, and European divisions over Bosnia will end the airstrikes.

''The strikes are aren't working,'' one UN official says. ''They could be over by this weekend.''

Air attacks on ammunition dumps, bridges, and command centers primarily in Serb-held suburbs of Sarajevo, continued yesterday, after being hampered by bad weather on Wednesday. But Serb officials are refusing to meet the UN's demands of pulling their heavy weapons away from Sarajevo, allowing the opening of the airport, or restoring electricity to the besieged city.

A strike on Tuesday against a Serb communications tower in the Majevica hills near Tuzla knocked out phone service and Serb television, but Western military officials say that during last week's three-day halt in the bombing, the Bosnian Serbs repaired some of their air-defense systems. ''They have reconstituted their assets,'' says one senior Western military official. ''They're somewhat where they were before.''

Bosnian Serb defiance continued Wednesday. Serbs fired four shells into the UN ''safe area'' of Bihac and mortars at the UN's Rapid Reaction Force on Mt. Igman, near Sarajevo.

''We hoped they would comply earlier,'' UN spokesman Alexander Ivanko said Wednesday, referring to UN demands the Serbs pull their weapons away from Sarajevo and stop attacking safe areas. ''[The Bihac attack] just shows the continuing defiance.''

But the Bosnian government also could derail one of the biggest successes so far of the new US peace effort in the Balkans. The first meeting between the foreign ministers of Bosnia, Croatia, and Serbia in over a year will begin in Geneva today, but Bosnian officials are threatening to scuttle the talks if the Serbs do not withdraw their weapons from Sarajevo.

The Bosnian government has suddenly gained significant leverage over its tough-talking, but slow-moving ally the United States. With the Clinton administration mounting its most high-profile and high-risk diplomatic effort ever in the former Yugoslavia, US officials are in the unusual position of depending on the Bosnian government not to derail the initiative.

Critics say the US has itself to blame. For years, US rhetoric has led the Bosnian government to repeatedly overestimate its strength. ''The Bosnians have been naive enough to believe that the US cavalry is just over the hill,'' a Western observer said.

Some UN officials are worried that the Bosnian government may try to take advantage of the NATO airstrikes to launch their own offensive. Last Wednesday, the Bosnian Army fired a handful of mortars from Sarajevo's Tito barracks at nearby Bosnian Serb positions. And on Thursday, 89 Bosnian shells were fired at the Serb-held suburb of Hadzici.

In the worst incident, two Bosnian Army shells were fired at a Serb position in Sarajevo Tuesday. The Serbs retaliated by firing six shells into Sarajevo, including two that fell near the compound of UN Bosnian commander Gen. Rupert Smith. French guns in the Rapid Reaction Force fired back at the Bosnian Serb position, apparently destroying it.

The Bosnian government told the UN that the two Bosnian soldiers who fired the rounds have been placed under arrest. UN officials say they don't want to be seen as taking sides in the conflict and warn any moves by the Bosnian Army will immediately scuttle the US peace initiative.

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