Threat of wider war looms in Balkans

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The Independent Online
TIME IS running out for the United States, the European Union and Russia as they struggle to contain the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina and prevent the Balkans from lurching into a general conflagration. The Western and Russian peace strategies appear to be falling apart in the face of defiant attitudes on the part of most major actors in the region. Every day the danger of a wider war is growing.

Although the West and Russia have never seen completely eye to eye on the conflicts gripping the Balkans, they have managed since May to maintain a fragile unity on the Bosnian war, the most urgent regional problem. However, the combined Bosnian Serb and Croatian Serb invasion last Thursday of the Muslim-held Bihac enclave of northern Bosnia has dealt a severe blow to Western and Russian efforts to achieve a settlement.

At the same time, a serious increase in tension between Albania and Greece this week has underlined that the Bosnian war is only one of several potentially disastrous ethnic and territorial disputes simmering in the Balkans. Greece closed an important border crossing with Albania and ordered extra troops to the frontier after an Albanian court jailed five ethnic Greeks for alleged espionage.

The assault on Bihac, coupled with an increase in Bosnian Serb expulsions of Muslims from areas such as Banja Luka and Bijeljina, indicate that the Bosnian Serbs have no intention of reversing their rejection of the Western-Russian peace proposal for Bosnia. This envisages awarding 51 per cent of the republic to a Muslim- Croat federation and the rest to the Bosnian Serbs.

As a result, it seems probable that the US will carry out its promise to ask the United Nations Security Council to lift the arms embargo on the Bosnian Muslims soon after 15 October. Britain, France and Russia are pressing the Americans to postpone the move, but the Clinton administration is under immense pressure from Congress not to back down.

Lifting the embargo will have several consequences. First, the British and French governments have made clear they will reduce their troop levels in Bosnia, where they make up the backbone of the UN forces. Secondly, Bosnian Serb offensives can be expected against Muslim-held areas, particularly against three vulnerable enclaves in the east - Gorazde, Srebrenica and Zepa - but now, it seems, Bihac as well.

Thirdly, by saddling themselves with moral responsibility for the Bosnian Muslim cause, the Americans will have to take steps to defend the Muslims in the months before sufficient weaponry can arrive to make a big difference to the Muslim war effort. This probably means more air strikes on Bosnian Serb targets, a step that the Russian government would find very hard to swallow, especially since it agrees with its conservative Russian nationalist opponents that the US should not have a free hand in the Balkans.

The Bihac invasion has also dented the Western and Russian strategy of offering incentives to Serbia, in the form of a relaxation of UN sanctions, in exchange for Serbian pressure on the Bosnian Serbs to accept the peace plan. For it has shown that the Bosnian Serbs, in alliance with the Serbian rebels who control 30 per cent of Croatia, can create havoc in Bosnia even without the support of their patrons in Belgrade.

UN officials spoke yesterday of declaring Bihac a heavy weapons exclusion zone, with the Bosnian Serbs liable to air strikes if they violate it. But in the two existing exclusion zones - around Sarajevo and Gorazde - the Bosnian Serbs have repeatedly fired their heavy weapons but have incurred little punishment.

It was for this reason that the Pope, concerned for the safety of thousands of Sarajevans who would have attended his open-air mass, felt obliged to cancel a trip to the Bosnian capital this week.

In many respects, the overall Western approach to the Yugoslav conflicts is looking ragged. The proposed Bosnian settlement hinges partly on the stability of the Muslim-Croat federation created earlier this year, but this federation is being increasingly exposed as a figleaf. For all practical purposes, it consists of a Bosnian Croat mini-state loyal to Croatia and a highly vulnerable collection of scattered Muslim enclaves.

Meanwhile, the Western hope that Croatia's rebel Serbs can be prodded into accepting autonomy in a restored Croatian state has had a hole punched through it by the Croatian Serb involvement in the Bihac invasion. This made clear that the Croatian Serbs will settle for nothing short of absorption into a Greater Serbian state.

It also increased the risk of another Serb-Croat war. With tempers rising all over the region, the West can look forward to yet another winter of impossible choices in the Balkans.