Attack raises stakes in diplomatic game

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The Muslim-led Bosnian government's latest military operations north of Sarajevo do not, as yet, qualify as a full-scale offensive. It seems more plausible that the government hopes to harass the Bosnian Serbs and perhaps provoke them into some dreadful act, such as an assault on civilians or UN forces, that could be exploited to buttress the Muslims' argument for foreign military help.

This is not to deny that the government has good reasons to take on the Bosnian Serbs in the Sarajevo area. For several weeks, the Bosnian Serbs have sealed off humanitarian aid deliveries to the city's residents by air and road, and UN warehouses are all but empty. Sarajevo needs pressure applied on its besiegers if it is to avoid a fourth winter of disease, hunger and cold. Another reason is that the Bosnian Serb army has been seizing back its tanks and artillery pieces under UN control, thus sharpening its advantage over the government in heavy weaponry. To the Muslim-led forces, it makes little sense to sit back and watch this advantage grow by the week.

Finally, the government forces and their Croatian allies have performed well in battle in recent months. The Muslim-led forces captured Mount Vlasic and its telecommunications towers in central Bosnia last April, and the Croats retook the Serb-held enclave of western Slavonia last month. It would do wonders for morale in Bosnia and Croatia if government troops could loosen the 38-month-old grip on Sarajevo.

However, the assessment of Bosnia-based UN military officials, and that of most US, British and French government analysts, is that the Muslim- led forces are still not strong enough to break the siege of Sarajevo on their own. The government's latest attacks can certainly help to sap the enemy's strength, but not before the Bosnian Serbs have inflicted more serious harm on Sarajevo and its people.

The government may be calculating that such suffering would once again focus the world's attention on the need to come to Sarajevo's assistance. It was the shelling of a Sarajevo marketplace in February 1994, killing 68 people, that sparked Nato's ultimatum to the Bosnian Serbs to withdraw their heavy weapons or place them under UN control.

Last month's shelling of a Tuzla street cafe, killing 71 people, also contributed to a feeling abroad that UN-declared "safe areas" for Bosnian Muslims required more effective protection. Ever since the war erupted in April 1992, the government has searched for ways to gain more foreign support, in the form of foreign troops or, more realistically, foreign arms supplies.

Although the Bosnian government has clearly been receiving some covert deliveries of foreign weapons, its main diplomatic objective for a long time has been to be released from the UN arms embargo. However, the Prime Minister, Haris Silajdzic, was dealt a serious blow this month when the Clinton administration told him the embargo must continue.

There are other reasons for the Bosnian government's frustration with the US, usually seen as Bosnia's main Western ally. On Wednesday President Bill Clinton made clear that the US preferred a diplomatic solution to an ambitious military campaign to break the siege of Sarajevo.

Now the disillusioned Bosnians see a Nato reluctant to launch more air attacks on the Bosnian Serbs, and a US dialogue with Serbia's President, Slobodan Milosevic, that has failed to make Belgrade recognise Bosnia's independence in its pre-war borders. US politicians and influential media commentators remain opposed to deploying ground troops in Bosnia. In these circumstances, a military operation that provokes a Bosnian Serb response, which in turn provokes a world outcry, is one of the few options available to the Muslim-led forces.

Yet such a strategy remains a gamble. A bold attack on the Serbs in the Sarajevo area risks the devastation of the three vulnerable Muslim enclaves of eastern Bosnia, and could complicate UN operations so much that it tips European political opinion against maintaining a UN presence for much longer.

This leads to the last, and most serious, difficulty hindering the Muslim cause: the lack of unity among the US and European governments over whether, or how much, to assist the Bosnian government. Already the planned European-led Rapid Reaction Force for Bosnia is running into trouble.

US congressional reluctance to help to fund the force is related to the fact that it would be under UN control, but also to a suspicion that the Europeans do not want the force to serve as a shield for the Muslim-led war effort. As long as the US and Europeans lack a common position on Bosnia beyond avoiding a Western slide into war, the Bosnian government will always find it hard to lift the siege of Sarajevo.


Europe Editor