Serb warrior holds out against UN: In the face of adversity General Ratko Mladic is single-minded in pursuing a military dream, writes Robert Block

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The Independent Online
There is a story that supporters of the Bosnian Serb military commander, General Ratko Mladic, love to tell about the man whom they call a living legend.

While travelling to an important meeting on the summit of Mount Jahorina last year, General Mladic found his way blocked by a boulder that had fallen off a cliff moments before. There was no time to find an alternative route or to wait for a bulldozer to remove the obstacle. But with nothing less than the entire future of 'Serbdom' at stake, the general refused to give in. He got out of his car and, like Superman, moved the rock with bare hands. He arrived at Jahorina in time to give a speech that led to the self-styled Bosnian Serb parliament rejecting the Vance-Owen peace plan.

Perhaps apocryphal, the tale is a good example not only of General Mladic's single-mindedness in the face of adversity, but also of his determination to let nothing and no one stand in the way of his dream of a Greater Serbia. These personal qualities have never been more in evidence than now.

At a time when peace may be lumbering across Bosnia's battle-scarred landscape, General Mladic is orchestrating offensives in northern and north-western Bosnia, pounding the desperate Muslim enclave of Maglaj, shooting at United Nations forces in Bihac and stopping humanitarian aid shipments elsewhere.

Since General Mladic took command of the Bosnian Serb army in 1992, his troops have persued war ruthlessly, using their superiority in arms with often brutal consequences for Muslim communities caught in the line of fire.

Many people in Maglaj and Bihac believe - and some UN officials agree - that General Mladic ordered an intensified assault on Maglaj in recent weeks and a new offensive in the north-west as a punishment because he could no longer do the same to Sarajevo.

But according to Milos Va sic, a respected military columnist for the Serbian magazine Vreme, General Mladic is not in the midst of a revenge spree. 'It's just business as usual,' Mr Vasic said. 'He is getting on with his job of firming up his lines of communication and securing more territory.'

During the last three years of war in the former Yugoslavia, first as an army commander in Croatia in 1991 and later as the head of the Bosnian Serb military, General Mla dic's strategy has been to seize swathes of territory while reducing his enemies' to scattered enclaves. The strategy worked in Croatia and in Bosnia government-held territory today resembles a jigsaw.

Now, with the siege lines around Sarajevo held firm by UN troops, General Mladic has been able to turn his attention, and his guns, to other territorial 'blots' on the landscape, such as Bihac and Maglaj.

'Mladic has Maglaj on the ropes,' said James Gow of the Centre for Defence Studies in London. According to Dr Gow, if General Mladic were able to overrun Maglaj, he would be in a position to push the mainly-Muslim Bosnian government forces further south and create a corridor connecting Serb-held areas of northern and western in the north and west of Bosnia with Serb-held areas of eastern Bosnia and Serbia proper.

The question is whether General Mladic will now abandon his strategic objective in the light of Monday's UN resolution demanding that the Serbs lift the siege of Maglaj.

Mr Vasic thinks that the general is willing to take the risks. On Saturday, Serbian troops around Bihac came close to being attacked by American AC-130 Spectre gunships. General Mladic warned the UN envoy against ordering air attacks against the Serbs.

In the end, though, General Mladic's biggest battle may be with his political masters, who are growing tired of braving Nato threats and may want to cut a deal.