Bosnia: Serbs' plan for city sounds death-knell for unitary state: Partition of the capital would mean end of multi-ethnic dream, writes Tony Barber

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THE SERBIAN objective in the siege of Sarajevo is not to capture the entire city but to partition it into two distinct sectors, one Serbian and one Muslim. This would serve the Serbs' wider aims in the Bosnian war in three ways.

First, it would kill any hope of restoring Sarajevo as the capital of a unitary Bosnian state within its pre- war borders. There would be no more independent Bosnia-Herzegovina, as recognised by Western countries last year. The Serbs would therefore achieve their goal of abolishing a state in which they are outnumbered by Muslims and Croats.

Second, the partition of Sarajevo would establish the Serbian principle that Bosnia's three nationalities should be physically divided from each other and organised in separate political entities. Sarajevo was the most culturally diverse and tolerant of Bosnian cities. If the doctrine of forced population transfers is implemented in Sarajevo, then the idea of an ethnically mixed Bosnia is dead.

Third, the division of Sarajevo would impose a condition of permanent vulnerability upon the rump Bosnian Muslim state that may emerge from the Geneva talks. Western countries and the international mediators, Lord Owen and Thorvald Stoltenberg, have bowed to Serbian and Croatian demands that Bosnia- Herzegovina be split into three states - Serbian Bosnia, Croatian Bosnia and Muslim Bosnia. With Sarajevo partitioned, Muslim Bosnia would be in no position to threaten Serbian Bosnia, especially if Serbian Bosnia unites with Serbia.

Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb leader, interviewed on Belgrade radio last Sunday, said, regarding the Geneva talks: 'We put forward and offered two possible solutions for Sarajevo. The first is the division of Sarajevo along the (Miljacka) river. The second is the creation of two towns.

'I believe that the international community, the Serbs and Muslims should be content with the plan of two neighbouring towns. We are now working on the formation and establishment of these two towns, and the Serbs are contributing their all here.'

The Bosnian Serbs' determination to divide Sarajevo places Western governments in an uncomfortable position. The West has no intention of rebuilding a unified Bosnia, but it has named Sarajevo as one of six 'safe areas' where Muslims should be protected. The West has also pledged to attack Serbian forces from the air unless they relax their siege.

If the Serbs press ahead with the partition of Sarajevo, then the West must either attack the Serbs and risk prolonged military involvement in Bosnia, or concede the Serbian case that Sarajevo should not be under the full control of the Bosnian government. To accept the Serbian case would represent another humiliating retreat for the West, raising serious implications for the stability of other troubled parts of eastern Europe.

The Serbs appear to believe that the partition of Sarajevo is within their grasp. The Belgrade-based news agency Tanjug said on Sunday: 'Discussion of . . . Sarajevo has reached the phase where it should be decided which part of the city could be used by the Muslims to go in and out of the city.'

The Serbs also have a clear military advantage. In the hilly region of Zuc, north-west of Sarajevo, they have inflicted hundreds of casualties on the Muslims in the past two weeks. On Sunday they captured Mount Bjelasnica, south-west of Sarajevo. From there Serbian gunners can shell Bosnian government forces defending Mount Igman, which commands the only supply route into the city.

Serbian forces are attacking Mount Igman from three directions. United Nations military personnel in Sarajevo say Bosnian government forces are wilting under the assault. A member of the Bosnian army general staff said on Tuesday that the Serbs had captured part of Mount Igman as well as two hotels on its slopes.

If the Serbs capture the mountain, they will almost certainly be able to seize the suburb of Hrasnica that lies below it. This would allow the Serbs to link Serb-held parts of western Sarajevo with their stronghold in Ilidza. The partition of Sarajevo would then be complete.