Muslim army success has Serbs rattled: Western air strikes 'will not end the war'

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'ARE YOU a Serb?' General Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb military leader, asked the reporter who telephoned him for reaction to the newest threats of Western air strikes against the Serbs.

'Well, yes I am actually,' the journalist replied.

'Then how could you ask me such a stupid question,' the general barked. 'If they're really going to bomb us then let them. There's nothing I can do about it. Now sod off and never ask me such a stupid question again,' the general said, slamming down the telephone.

After almost one year of dithering like a multinational Hamlet over whether 'to bomb or not to bomb', a decision by the West to launch air strikes now would in some ways be a relief for General Mladic from the constant bluster and uncertainty. The West's on-again off- again threat of air attacks against the Serbs for their obstruction of United Nations operations in Bosnia-Herzegovina was raised yet again on Friday by the UN Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali.

In an apparent about face on his earlier reservations over the use of air power in Bosnia, he told a news conference in the Hague that he was in favour of using air strikes to help implement UN resolutions in the former Yugoslavia if his special representative in the region, Yasushi Akashi, requested it.

By Friday night, Western diplomats in Zagreb were warning that there could be air attacks on northern Bosnia some time this week. Too much international credibility was at stake, they said. It was time for the West to put up or shut up.

All the threats were linked to calls for the Serbs to allow the rotation of UN troops in the eastern Muslim enclave of Srebrenica, and to open Tuzla airport in northern Bosnia for humanitarian aid flights.

What Mr Boutros-Ghali and other world leaders have to face, however, is that - air strikes or no air strikes - the war in Bosnia is set to grind on regardless. At present the Bosnian Serbs are more worried about the greatly improved ability of the mainly Muslim Bosnian army than the immediacy of any Western air attacks.

Since May, the Bosnian army has been on the march against Croatian forces, and has taken six towns and countless villages in central Bosnia. Even though they lack heavy artillery, a crucial factor in the war, the Muslims have been able to make use of their numerical superiority, restructured infantry units and improved tactics to rout the Croats.

The Bosnian army's string of battlefield successes has sent troop morale soaring. This in turn has made the Bosnian political leadership more defiant in the face of international pressure to accept a three-way carve-up of the country, which would leave the Muslims with an economically unviable land- locked mini-state populated by millions of embittered homeless refugees.

So after almost two years in which the Serbs and the Croats have dictated the tempo on the battlefield and at the negotiating table, the Muslims, feeling betrayed by the world and beholden to none, have started to call the shots and are aiming at least to temper the degree of their defeat.

'We refuse to be helpless victims. We must fight back,' the Bosnian Prime Minister, Haris Silajdzic, said last week after the latest round of Bosnian peace talks collapsed in Geneva.' What this means is months, possibly years, of continuing war. The prospect of a struggle without end fills the Serbs with dread, despite their claims to the contrary.

What makes this all the more painful for them is that for a while it seemed that President Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia and his client warlord, the Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, had victory within their grasp: Serbian control over half of Bosnia, an end to the war and its drain on Serbian resources, and perhaps even the lifting of international sanctions on Serbia.

But by continuing ethnic cleansing in areas under Serbian control, and by refusing to relinquish their stranglehold on Sarajevo, the Serbs have succeeded only in pushing the Muslims into a 'fight or die' mentality. And in doing so, the Serbs have painted themselves into a corner: they now find themselves trapped in a war many no longer want and a vast majority can scarcely afford.

Instead of victory and economic renewal, all Serbs have to look forward to now is watching the government put more zeros on their currency as their standard of living plummets.

Fearing that, once the Muslims finish with the Croats, they will turn their full force on the Serbs, it appears that Belgrade has decided to try to finish the war militarily as quickly as possible. It has been sending equipment and troops from Serbia proper to Bosnia to help prop up the Bosnian Serbs. In addition, Serbian authorities have been violating international law by mobilising refugees to help Serbian army ranks.

Diplomats and other observers say the Serbs now believe that, to finish the war, they must strike the Muslims before the Muslims can launch an offensive against the Serbs. In order to do this, they need all the men they can lay their hands on, even refugees.

The only predictions being made now about the outcome of a new round of intense fighting between the Serbs and Muslims is that it will be long and bloody and decisive.

Milos Vasic, the respected military correspondent for the Liberal Serbian weekly, Vreme, said: 'I've always maintained that the end of this war would be decided on the battlefield, not in some political meeting in Geneva or anywhere else. Air strikes might affect the balance to some extent, but it will not change the fact that this war will be ended only through the force of arms.'

(Photograph omitted)