Bosnia Serbs wait in vain for the cavalry

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The Independent Online
BELGRADE - The three officers sat quietly on the couch at the back of Belgrade's international press centre. Normally a closed institution, the Yugoslav military made a subdued public appearance yesterday to mark a special event: the launch of a new military magazine for Krajina, the mountainous area of what used to be south-western Croatia, now a UN protected zone controlled by the Serbs, writes Robert Block.

The occasion attracted other Yugoslav VIPs such as Vojislav Seselj, a radical Serbian nationalist, but the officers were the real guests of honour. Their presence and contributions to the new magazine, Krajina Army, was meant to be a display of Serbian solidarity. The bond between the two forces was underlined by brotherly embraces, particularly between a colonel from Krajina and the senior ranking Yugoslav officer, General Radovan Radinovic.

Those bonds, however, came under real strain in January 1992, when Serbia's President, Slobodan Milosevic, sought to end the Serb- Croat war and sued for peace, backing a UN peace plan devised by Cyrus Vance. The Serbs had wrested control of 30 per cent of Croatia but that did not soften the blow for the Krajina Serbs. They had counted on the backing of Mr Milosevic and Gen Radinovic to the bitter end of the struggle for a 'Greater Serbia'.

Now another group of Serbs, this time from Bosnia, are counting on the same unyielding support from the Yugoslav army in a similar situation. On Monday Mr Milosevic unexpectedly announced that the time had come for Serbs to end the war in Bosnia and accept a peace plan drawn up Mr Vance and Lord Owen. Bosnia's Serbs chose to snub the President, rejecting the plan.

'Bosnian Serbs in their hearts do not want to believe that the pressure to accept the Vance-Owen plan is real. They want to think that at any moment now the army, like a cavalry, will charge to their rescue,' said Predrag Simic, the director of the International Institute of Politics and Economics in Belgrade.

Some diplomats were also disbelieving. 'For Mr Milosevic to change gears so fast he had better have the army behind him,' one Western diplomat said.

If there were any doubts as to the position the army would take over Bosnia, they were quietly dispelled yesterday at the press centre. Distributed along with the Krajina magazine was the latest issue of the Yugoslav military publication, Army. Its first article was the letter Mr Milosevic sent to the Bosnian Serb parliament urging it to accept the Vance-Owen plan.

'We deem we have as much right as you have to take decisions of importance for the Serbian people and we therefore request you to respect our categorical stand and accept the plan,' the letter said.

The next article is a reprint of an interview in Der Spiegel with General Zivota Panic, the Yugoslav chief of staff. Milos Vasic, the respected military analyst for the Yugoslav weekly, Vreme, said the Panic interview is important because he backs away from unconditional support for the Bosnian Serbs.

Referring to the Serbian conquest of 70 per cent of Bosnia, the general said: 'We have what belongs to us, perhaps 10 per cent more.' He was also quoted as saying: 'The army of Yugoslavia has no intention or need of intervening anywhere.'

Gen Radinovic was asked yesterday how the Yugoslav army would view lifting the arms embargo on the Bosnian Muslims. He described such a move as unnecessary. 'But if it happened we would view it negatively, but we would not consider it an act of war.'

Such statements will undoubtedly be taken into consideration next Wednesday when the Bosnian Serb parliament meets again to reconsider its rejection of the peace plan.