Jumble of Bihac combatants leaves Nato unsure who to bomb

Western military planners yesterday abruptly changed their focus to the complex campaign unfolding in north-west Bosnia, a set of battles which carries the risk of a new war between Serbia and Croatia.

Despite the violence of the fighting around the Muslim enclave of Bihac, Ministry of Defence sources said they did not believe either the UN-declared "safe area" or its Bangladeshi peace-keepers were in imminent danger. At the same time, military intelligence reports indicated that there was no immediate threat to the south-east enclave of Gorazde, now protected by a threat of Nato air strikes against the Bosnian Serbs.

The lull in Bosnian Serb activity there, coupled with the entry of five aid convoys into Sarajevo, suggested to British officials that the Bosnian Serb commander, General Ratko Mladic, had "got the message".

But their assessment has to be measured against the clear desire of Britain, and possibly France, to avoid the devastating air strikes against the Serbs promised by the United States.

That posture stands in clear opposition to the interests of the Clinton administration, which seems to believe that only by unleashing force can it now demonstrate to Congress a credible commitment to the protection of Bosnia.

Yesterday the US Defense Secretary, William Perry, once again outlined the American plans, which call for air attacks on the Bosnian Serb air defence system, followed by strikes against troops and armour and extending, if necessary, to raids on power stations, dams and bridges. Some 300 aircraft would take part in what could be a three-stage operation. These possibilities receded yesterday as Bosnian Serb commanders were distracted by the serious reverses in the north-west. In Britain's view, the fighting in that area is of such complexity it makes Nato air strikes against any of the participants unlikely.

There have been no fewer than six combatants involved in Bihac, and associated battles, this week in a confusing contest: the Croatian Serb army made inroads into the Bihac pocket, where the Fifth Brigade of the Bosnian army suffered initial reverses but appeared to be well dug in around its key positions, particularly the airfield at Cazin.

Blurring the political issues, the Croatian Serbs were fighting alongside Muslim forces loyal to the local warlord, Fikret Abdic. Weighing in from the south-east of Bihac Bosnian Serb forces made an ineffective assault on the Fifth Brigade.

Military analysts think the Croatian Serbs started the battle to give themselves a buffer zone to the rear, in anticipation of a serious offensive by the Croatian army against the Krajina, the Serb-held border territory.

And that is precisely what happened some 100km to the south, where the Croatian army and the Bosnian Croat militia launched a push to cut the road supplying the Serb fastness of Knin. "Just who is Nato expected to bomb out of that lot?" inquired a British official.