Bosnia's Muslims want peace, but not yet: Both the Serbs and the UN are losing ground in the war. Tony Barber reports

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IN SARAJEVO, 1993 began just like 1992 had ended. On the stroke of midnight, clusters of fiery red tracer bullets lit up the sky, and the city echoed to the crash and rattle of artillery shells, mortar bombs and gunshots.

It was evidence that some participants in the Bosnian war were more interested in fighting than in promoting a successful outcome to the peace talks that opened yesterday in Geneva. And at the moment, it is forces loyal to Bosnia's Muslim-led government, rather than the Bosnian Serbs, who have the biggest incentive to prolong the war.

The Serbs conquered about 70 per cent of Bosnia last April and May and have devastated cities such as Sarajevo and Bihac in northern Bosnia with months of bombardment. Yet the impression of a relentless Serbian war machine crushing all in its path is misleading. In recent weeks, the Bosnian Serb position has actually deteriorated, and there is good reason to believe it will get worse if, as the West wants, the UN Security Council passes a resolution permitting the use of force to keep Serbian aircraft grounded in the republic.

This point was underlined in a report by UN intelligence experts in Sarajevo that was leaked on Friday. 'They (the Bosnian government forces) are convinced that military intervention is inevitable and are gaining confidence in their own capabilities with or without outside help. The (Bosnian) presidency and their military leaders are not willing to end the war under current conditions,' the report said.

On several crucial fronts, the Muslim-led forces are applying increasing pressure on the Serbs. In eastern Bosnia, near the Drina river that marks the republic's border with Serbia, the Muslims have recaptured territory that the Serbs overran last spring. In central Bosnia, Captain Lee Smart, an officer serving in Britain's 2,400-strong UN contingent, reported last week that the Muslims had made 'considerable progress into Serb salients'.

Outside Sarajevo, according to UN officials, the Muslims have massed 10,000 fighters for an offensive to lift the Serbian siege of the capital. While the UN intelligence report questioned the Muslims' chances of success in liberating Sarajevo, the government forces are much better-organised than they were at the outset of the war, and it also seems likely that they now outnumber the Serbs.

Above all, the government forces are close to cutting a land corridor in northern Bosnia near the town of Brcko that the Serbs use to send supplies from Serbia to Bosnian Serb-held territory. Western military sources said last Thursday that government troops had severed this corridor in five places. They added that the Serbs had been compelled to use aircraft to resupply their forces.

Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb leader, insisted last week that the Serbs had flown no combat missions since mid-October and that helicopters were used mainly to ferry wounded soldiers from battle zones. Western military experts and UN officials accept that there have been no combat flights, but say the helicopters are transporting weapons and ammunition to reinforce Serbian positions in northern Bosnia.

The Muslims argue that, with even limited foreign military help, they could consolidate their recent advances. But the UN Security Council has refused to lift the arms embargo against the Muslims, and that is one reason why Sarajevo's defenders have come to view the UN as an unfriendly, even biased, organisation.

Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the UN Secretary-General, did not help matters when he visited the capital on New Year's Eve and appeared to belittle the misery and slaughter being endured by its inhabitants. 'You have a situation which is better than 10 other places in the world,' he said.

Bosnia's Muslim President, Alija Izetbegovic, did not even bother to stay in Sarajevo for the UN chief's trip, and made clear on Friday that he had little faith in the Geneva talks. 'We are fighting against criminals and not against the people. I personally think the negotiations will not last long,' he said.

If the Muslims' determination to fight on and the Serbs' desire to hold on to their conquests pose serious problems for the UN, so does the Bosnian Croat strategy. Although Western leaders seem not to want to discuss it openly, the Croats have turned western Herzegovina into what amounts to a province of Croatia, complete with the same currency and flag used in Zagreb. With good reason, the Muslims suspect that the Croats, their nominal allies, are more interested in carving up Bosnia with the Serbs than in reversing the Serbian gains.

(Photograph and map omitted)