Milosevic army may stay out of fight: Only 'legalised genocide' would lead forces from rump Yugoslavia to back Bosnian Serbs in clash with Nato

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The Independent Online
AS BRITISH, French and American warplanes stand by for what could be the first military engagement in Nato's history, the army of rump Yugoslavia watches the gathering maelstrom with apprehension. But barring high civilian casualty rates from Nato bombs, the main Serbian army in the area appears prepared to let Bosnian Serbs face Western air strikes alone.

'We believe that Serbs in the Republika Srpska (the Bosnian Serbs' self-proclaimed statelet) have enough wisdom and strength to protect their weapons from air strikes and to cause damage to attacking planes in the event of any bombardment of their artillery positions,' Colonel Ljubodrag Stoja dinovic, the Yugoslav army's spokesman, said in a rare interview yesterday.

The possiblity of Western intervention bringing the 80,000-strong Yugoslav army (VJ) of Serbia and Montenegro to the rescue of Serbs in Bosnia has been an important consideration of Nato military planners. Despite repeated denials, the rump Yugoslav federation is widely believed to be giving direct support to the Serbian nationalists fighting the mainly Muslim government in Bosnia. It was in an effort to pressurise Belgrade into halting such assistance that the UN imposed economic sanctions on Yugoslavia in 1992.

The open involvement of the well-equipped VJ in the fight against United Nations servicemen in Nato aircraft would be a first step towards widening the Bosnia war and turning Nato's attempt to lift the siege of Sarajevo into the opening of a bloody new war. But according to Colonel Stojadinovic, Nato air strikes on Serbian artillery positions around Sarajevo do not by themselves appear to be a sufficient cause for the VJ to join the fray.

'However,' he added, 'if it seems that the air strikes are aimed against Serbs (civilians), then this would be viewed as something completely different . . . It would be viewed as internationally legalised genocide. The result would be uncontrollable warfare.'

One problem facing Nato planes in an attack would be that many of the 100 or so big guns that enforce the Serbian siege of Sarajevo are perilously close to both Serbian and Muslim residential areas. The positioning of weapons near hospitals and public buildings is a tactic employed by all sides in Bosnia. Bombing raids would have to be precise in order to keep civilian casualties, euphemistically known as 'collateral damage', to a minimum.

When asked how the VJ would distinguish between 'acceptable collateral damage' and 'genocide', Colonel Stojadinovic replied: 'Just as the attacker has a right to evaluate the criteria for target selection, those under attack have a right to determine if the concept of air strikes has exceeded acceptable boundaries . . . I am certain that in any bombing raids around Sarajevo, the least number of casualties would be among soldiers.'

Command of the VJ is vested in a body known as the Supreme Defence Council, comprising the presidents of Serbia and Montenegro and the armed forces' chief of staff. In practice the real power is with President Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia, who has overseen the VJ's transformation from a multi-ethnic, Communist-led fighting force, to an essentially Serbian professional army. The course the VJ steers will depend solely on the political ambitions of Mr Milosevic. 'The final military position, of course, is dependent on politicians and state policy,' Colonel Stojadinovic said.

There was an element of bravado and rhetoric in what the colonel said, but the impression he gave was one of concern: 'As you can clearly see, I am extremely worried.'

He compared the situation in the Balkans today to 1914, when, following the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand by a young Serb in Sarajevo, Austria attempted to stem Serbian aspirations towards a pan-Slav state and issued Serbia with an uncompromising ultimatum. The result was the First World War.

'The only difference between then and now is that the Serbs are not responsible for that massacre in the Sarajevo market. That's what makes Nato's ultimatum (for Serbs to withdraw their artillery from around Sarajevo) ridiculous.'

Andrew Marr, page 19

(Photograph omitted)