Bosnian Serbs warn West

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RADOVAN KARADZIC, the Bosnian Serb leader, warned the West yesterday that attacks on Serbian aircraft in Bosnia-Herzegovina would be regarded as 'an act of war'. Balkan experts said the statement reflected rising fears among Bosnian Serbs that their military position is so precarious it could quickly collapse.

'Calls for the enforcement of a no-fly zone are an excuse to embroil Western powers in military action in Bosnia,' Mr Karadzic said. 'We are reviewing the situation urgently with a view to protecting our position in the event of military intervention by any outside force.'

If the West used force, he said, the Bosnian Serbs would 'ask all UN ground troops to leave Bosnia-Herzegovina, all humanitarian convoys to cease and all military vehicles to return to their bases within six hours of any allied attack. Such an attack would end the impartial role of UN forces on the ground. It is likely that the Bosnian Serb civilian population and parliament would consider the destruction of our aircraft as an act of war.'

The UN Security Council is set to pass a resolution in the next few days authorising force to stop Serbian aircraft violating the no-fly zone in Bosnia imposed earlier this autumn. Some Western experts believe strict enforcement could tilt the military balance against the Bosnian Serbs but fail to solve other complex problems in the former Yugoslavia.

The Serbs control about 70 per cent of the republic, but they are in danger of losing an area in north-eastern Bosnia that is vital for the flow of food, munitions and other supplies by air and land from Serbia. The zone includes the town of Brcko, whose southern half has fallen to Bosnian government forces.

'The strength of the Bosnian Serb position has been exaggerated in the West,' said Mark Mazower, a Balkan expert at Sussex University. 'The conflict is very finely balanced near Brcko.'

He said it was significant that Bosnian government forces had made inroads into Serbian positions despite being lightly armed. 'In the first four to five weeks after the war started in April, surprise and terror were the Serbs' weapons, and that was when they took 70 per cent of Bosnia. But since then, their advances have been very few and indeed in some places have been reversed.'

According to Milos Vasic, an independent military analyst based in Belgrade, the Serbian campaign of 'ethnic cleansing' - expelling tens of thousands of Muslims from their home areas - has turned out to the Serbs' disadvantage. By depopulating the countryside, the campaign has disrupted agricultural work and made many Bosnian Serbs dependent on food flown or driven in from Serbia. If the Muslims cut off the land route from Serbia near Brcko, and if the West cuts off the air route, then the Serbs of northern Bosnia will be stranded.

The Western powers decided on deeper involvement in the war partly because Islamic countries, incensed at the suffering of Bosnia's Muslims and the West's reluctance to intervene, have threatened independent military action.

'There is enormous pressure from the Islamic states for intervention, and the West is on a path of being pushed in whether it likes it or not,' Dr Mazower said. He said that, apart from the Arab world, Turkey's parliament and armed forces were especially angry at the lack of help for the Muslims. The Bosnian Muslim leaders, though keen to secure foreign aid, would probably prefer Western to Arab military support because they do not want to be identified with militant Islam.

Western countries are already blockading Serbia's ally Montenegro in the southern Adriatic, and are trying to prevent violations of a UN trade embargo on the Danube and by land through Bulgaria. The enforcement of the no-fly zone in Bosnia would supplement these efforts but need not mean shooting down Serbian fighter planes.

Military experts believe that the Serbs have reduced their combat missions in recent weeks and most flights now are undertaken by helicopters taking food and military supplies from Serbia into Bosnian Serb-held territory. The Bosnian Serbs have about 40 warplanes stationed at the airport in Banja Luka, their capital, but only 20 are thought to be usable.

Another advantage for the Bosnian Muslims is that they still control an important air base at Tuzla. Western countries could in theory send out aircraft from this base on missions to block the Serbian air supply route.

However, enforcement of the no-fly zone in Serb-held Bosnia would leave other problems unanswered. One is the de facto Croatian annexation of western Herzegovina, where the Croatian flag and currency are used and military units from Croatia have fought in support of Bosnian Croats.

Another is that the mandate for keeping UN troops in Serb-held parts of Croatia will soon end, and Croatia is determined to recapture its lost lands, by force if necessary. In both cases, the West hopes that it will be enough to exert pressure on Croatia's President, Franjo Tudjman, so that progress towards a political settlement is not impeded.

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