Recalcitrant Serbs test Western resolve over mountains

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The Independent Online
THE COMMANDER of United Nations' forces in Bosnia, General Francis Briquemont, flew from Sarajevo to the Nato airbase of Aviano yesterday to discuss possible air strikes against Bosnian Serbs. The sudden departure of the Belgian general raised tension in the city, where besieging Bosnian Serbs appear ready to test the limits of Western resolve over over the fate of two strategic mountains.

A UN spokesman in Sarajevo said Serbian forces were still present on Mount Igman and Mount Bjelasnica overlooking Sarajevo, although there were signs of a withdrawal. 'The Serbs are withdrawing, but not with the speed that we hoped,' Commander Barry Frewer said. 'There are thousands of them still up there,' he added. He said the UN had deployed a force of 150 in four platoons on the two mountains, to observe and clear mines on roads.

Western journalists who reached Mount Igman from Serb-held Trnovo yesterday saw Serbian anti-aircraft guns located near the top of the mountain, within view of a stationary French UN tank. Serbian fighters were milling around in a relaxed mood. Some offered peace-keepers swigs of whisky and cigarettes. They were quoted as saying they had received no orders to pull out yet.

The Bosnian Serb commander, General Ratko Mladic, has said he will leave Mount Igman only when UN forces assume total control of the area. 'The problem does not lie in the withdrawal of Serb forces but in the insufficient strength and slow deployment of UN forces,' the Bosnian Serb chief of staff, Manojlo Milovanovic, told Tanjug, the Belgrade news agency.

The Serbs' goal is to force the UN to police the mountain for them, and cut off a vital supply line for arms and food that connects Sarajevo with Muslim-held territory to the south-west. The UN says it cannot assume control of Mount Igman without seriously depleting manpower elsewhere.

The impasse, with Serbs and UN peace-keepers mingling together on Mount Igman, suits Bosnian Serbs much better than is suits the United Nations. They are in effect using the UN as a human shield against possible US-led air strikes. 'Hit now and you hit your own people,' one Serbian soldier reportedly told a UN peace-keeper.

The commander of the Muslim-led Bosnian army claimed yesterday that Serb forces were not abiding by a verbal promise to withdraw from Mount Igman, overlooking Sarajevo, but were instead installing extra anti-aircraft guns on the slopes to hit back against Nato air strikes. 'We have information that on Igman some rocket systems are installed, probably anti-aircraft missiles, in order to act maybe against air strikes,' General Rasim Delic told reporters.

The general said yesterday that limited air strikes might be enough to force besieging Serbs to lift the 16-month siege of the city. 'We have heard empty threats many times from the outside - what we need now are real deeds,' he said. Gen Delic added that he was 'still cautious and sceptical' that the UN would authorise strikes in the near future.

He said a Serbian withdrawal from the surrounding high ground overlooking Sarajevo would dramatically improve conditions for more than 350,000 civilians, most of whom have had no electricity or water supplies for over two months.