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Source: TIME Magazine, August 7, 1995, Volume 146, No. 6


The withering battle for Bihac is joined, and the Balkan conflict widens

by Bruce W. Nelan
Reported by Edward Barnes/Zagreb, Massimo Calabresi/Sarajevo and Alexandra Stiglmayer/Tuzla, with other bureaus
The war in Bosnia flares like a midsummer forest fire, defying the West's wavering attempts to contain it. On Friday, July 21, the NATO allies announced a bold new plan to deter Serb aggression. In the days that followed this call to arms, Ratko Mladic, the commander of the rebel Bosnian Serbs, seized and "ethnically cleansed" one "safe area," Zepa, and intensified a brutal assault on another, Bihac. Meanwhile, an eventuality that the U.N. and NATO had dearly hoped to prevent--a widening of the Balkan war--seemed by Friday to have occurred, as Croatia joined the fighting. Not a very good record for any week, much less one that was supposed to be marked by the West's new determination to halt the slaughter.

On Tuesday Bosnian Serbs finally occupied the eastern enclave of Zepa, which they had been attacking since June, and promptly ejected 5,000 women, children and old men because they were Muslim. The Serbs then looted and set fire to the town. The refugees reached Bosnian government lines exhausted and dazed, but apparently without suffering the sort of atrocities the Serbs had inflicted on the 42,000 residents of Srebrenica two weeks before. (A U.N. commission accused Mladic and Radovan Karadzic of genocide last week.) The New York Times reported Bosnian claims that the Serbs had used some sort of gas attack to rout the last of Zepa's defenders, but details of the assault could not be confirmed.

After Zepa fell, Mladic increased his merciless pressure on Bihac, an isolated U.N. safe area in the northwest. Coordinating efforts with Serb rebels from neighboring Croatia and antigovernment Muslim irregulars, he attacked the so-called Bihac pocket, a cluster of towns and villages that
shelters more than 160,000 people, mostly Muslims. He and his allies, totaling about 25,000 men, rolled up a third of the pocket and drew to within two or three miles of the main U.N. camp at Coralici, where 1,300 poorly armed Bangladeshi peacekeepers are holed up.

Those Serb attacks, in turn, triggered a counteroffensive by Croatia, across the border from Bihac. Up to 10,000 Croat troops attacked south and west of Bihac, cutting a main supply route between the two Serb strongholds of Knin in Croatia and Banja Luka in Bosnia. Artillery fire sent 5,000 Serb civilians fleeing from the town of Bosansko Grahovo, which the Croats captured on Friday. Croat forces followed up by taking nearby Glamoc and shelling Strmica. Karadzic confirmed that his army had "withdrawn to reserve positions" and ordered full mobilization in the 70% of Bosnia already in his grasp.

The stirring of Croatia is one of the most important events of the war in years. One-third of the country was seized by rebel Croatian Serbs in 1991. Ever since, President Franjo Tudjman has been preparing openly for a campaign aimed at recapturing that land, and the Croatian armed forces have been rebuilding and training with new weapons. In May they took back Western Slavonia, and it has been assumed that a major Croat offensive would begin this summer. The action last week seemed to be the overture. By week's end, young men had disappeared from the streets of Zagreb, called up into the army, and Croat forces had begun to gather near Karlovac, just north of Krajina. A U.N. spokesman says massive Croat attacks on Krajina, the Serb-held portion of Croatia, "may be initiated soon, possibly within days."

If Croatia enters the war at full throttle, the Balkan equation will change entirely. It will be a Serb vs. Croat conflict; the Bosnian Muslims will become the Croats' rivalrous junior partners; and the border between Bosnia and Croatia may all but disappear. There are six armies in the field along that border: those of the Croats, the Bosnian Croats and the Bosnian Muslims, all of whom are allied; and those of the Bosnian Serbs, the Croatian Serbs and some renegade Bosnian Muslims, all of whom are also allied. If the Serbs of Croatia and Bosnia begin to lose battles and territory, the President of Serbia, Slobodan Milosevic, may be tempted to send in yet another army--his own, the powerful remainder of former Yugoslav forces.

Given NATO's apparent resolve, why weren't the Serbs deterred, and how did all this happen? First of all, at the emergency meeting in London on the 21st, the allies simply wrote off Zepa, even though it remained in Bosnian Muslim hands. Then it became clear, despite what Washington was suggesting, that the agreement reached at the London meeting was only an outline. The NATO plan contained no specifics, and U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali had made no promise to delegate his control over air strikes until he heard the full details of what the alliance proposed.

A consensus on those details came later and after long debate. NATO's generals and ambassadors met over the weekend and into last week in Brussels, winding up with a 13-hour marathon session that ended only at 4 a.m. Wednesday. If the Serbs showed signs of massing for a full-scale attack on Gorazde, the last safe area in eastern Bosnia, NATO planes would pre-emptively attack the Serb air defenses, troop formations, armor and artillery in the area. If the Serbs still pushed on, allied fighter-bombers would range farther, taking out ammunition and fuel dumps and Serb supply lines. "Such operations," NATO Secretary-General Willy Claes warned, "once launched, will not be lightly discontinued."

But first they would have to be launched. NATO can make all the plans and decisions it wants, but as long as it affirms that the military operation in Bosnia is dedicated to peacekeeping under the authority of the U.N., then nothing can happen without the U.N.'s approval, and nothing can happen that is not in accordance with various U.N. resolutions regarding Bosnia. Air strikes, for example, have been subject to what was called the dual-key system: U.N. military commanders have had to ask for NATO warplanes to hit a specific target, and U.N. civilian representatives have had to approve the request. In the past that happened rarely and resulted in small attacks that were universally dismissed as "pinpricks."

NATO was now determined to go beyond such pusillanimity and asked Boutros-Ghali to hand his key over to the U.N.'s uniformed commanders in the former Yugoslavia, on the theory that they would be less timid than civilian officials. Boutros-Ghali agreed to delegate his authority over air strikes around safe areas and close air support for the U.N. Protection Force (unprofor), to the commander of all peacekeepers in the region, General Bernard Janvier of France. Janvier thus has the authority to order airstrikes to protect safe areas. He cannot, on his own, call in the kind of
wide-ranging air attacks against civilian economic targets like power stations and ports with which the Americans have wanted to threaten the Serbs, and that many believe would be necessary to bring them to the negotiating table.

Because Janvier has been given a carefully designed NATO plan to protect Gorazde, he may have little choice but to call in air strikes if the Serbs attack, no matter how reluctant he has been in the past--and he has a reputation for caution almost equal to his civilian U.N. colleagues. "He's
willing to go along," says a NATO official in Brussels. "He put our minds at rest." How long he would allow such an air campaign to continue, once peacekeepers and civilians begin taking casualties, is another matter. Tough talk at NATO and in the Security Council has usually been followed by climb-downs because the French and British put the safety of their peacekeeping troops first. London, Paris and Washington have all blamed the dual-key system and U.N. representative Yasushi Akashi for too-little, too-late air strikes. But Akashi's instructions came from Boutros-Ghali and the Security Council, where France and Britain have been intent on playing the military card with utmost caution.

Now, say the allies, that has changed. They vow to persevere even if their soldiers on the ground are endangered. The signal, says U.S. Ambassador to NATO Robert Hunter, is that "grabbing hostages is not a turnoff to what NATO does." So far this stance applies only to Gorazde, where Serb shelling ceased last week. But as the Bosnian government predicted, the Serbs decided to concentrate their violence on Bihac. The U.S. is pushing to extend the agreement to Bihac and the other two remaining U.N. safe areas, Tuzla and Sarajevo. Says U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke: "We believe the rules of engagement we are now applying to the Gorazde area should be applied nationwide." In order to do that, however, NATO must go back into conference. The North Atlantic Council, the civilian representatives of the 16 member states, will have to agree to such an extension; it is scheduled to take it up this week. One U.S. planner says somewhat different options may be chosen for each safe area.

In Sarajevo, for example, NATO is likely to favor air strikes if the Serbs resume heavy shelling, but the emphasis so far has been on ground reinforcements. France and Britain are adding another battalion each to the new rapid-reaction force in the Sarajevo area. The purpose of the force is to keep open a supply route into the hungry city across the heights of Mount Igman. The troops are willing to use their artillery and heavy mortars to protect aid convoys, and have done so. That is new: U.N. resolutions have always allowed peacekeepers to use force if it is necessary to deliver humanitarian aid, but that right has almost never been exercised. However, the Mount Igman force is not willing to respond to Serb bombardment of Bosnian trucks, only U.N. ones. When a Bosnian convoy was shelled last week, the rapid-reaction force did nothing. By replying, it would have violated an even more basic tenet of the U.N. mission: that the peacekeepers maintain, strict neutrality.

The allies insist that the unprofor mission should be sustained, but they now argue that--at least where Gorazde is concerned--the U.N. and NATO will aggressively exploit the right to use force, including air strikes, that U.N. resolutions have always granted. One reason for treating that claim
with caution is unprofor's record so far. The U.N. force is obliged to protect the civilians who live in the safe areas and can call on the allies for help. But how good a job did the U.N.-NATO partners do protecting the civilians of Srebrenica and Zepa?

The next test of will has arrived in Bihac. Though the Croatian army is surging forward, it is still almost 50 miles south of the enclave. Inside the pocket, Serb shells are raining down--1,000 in one hour on Friday. Almost no aid shipments have arrived in the encircled zone for months, and the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees says the first confirmed deaths from starvation occurred there two weeks ago. The only hospital in Bihac is out of antibiotics and anesthetics, though amputations are still being performed. Aid workers call Bihac "a humanitarian catastrophe."

The way the newly streamlined U.N. military command sees its role in this crisis points to another reason for caution when interpreting the agreements made in the last two weeks. Even if NATO does help the U.N. enforce its resolutions with utmost aggressiveness, it will still be bound by its neutrality, which means the Bosnians will often be left out in the cold. This might now be called the Mount Igman model. At a press conference in Brussels last week, Janvier was quick to point out that there is a difference between the Bihac pocket, which is a large swath of territory, and the official U.N. safe area, which encompasses only the city of Bihac. "I think," said Janvier, "that the actions we can prepare will eventually deter an attack against the safe area of Bihac."

In other words, even if the six armies are at war in the pocket, neither NATO nor the U.N. feels impelled to get involved. Only if the city proper or the peacekeepers inside are threatened will the Western allies be drawn in.

That policy conforms with the letter of the U.N. resolutions, no doubt, but it offers little hope to the residents of the Bihac pocket or to a Bosnian government trying to defend what is left of its country.