Serb 'slap in face' sparks mixed US response

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The Independent Online
DIFFERENT US officials have responded with different noises to the French call for a stiffening of the United Nations military role but there is a general expectation that aggressive steps will at last be taken to try and lift the siege of Sarajevo.

"The French are leading the way and we're very happy to see it," said one senior policy-maker at the US State Department, of proposals to clear a road out of Sarajevo. But of plans to beef up the military line around Gorazde, where British troops are stationed, another US official said these "had more holes than a chunk of Swiss cheese".

The Americans may be unwilling to act decisively in Bosnia but the humiliating events of the past week have at least stung them into dispatching General John Shalikashvili, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to London today to attend a meeting of defence ministers. His trip comes in the light of what White House spokesman Mike McCurry described as "the dire and urgent situation" in the purportedly "safe" UN enclaves.

Bringing home to American officials just how far their capacity to influence events in the Balkans has fallen was the response last week of Slobodan Milosevic, the Serbian President, to the US charge d'affaires in Belgrade. Immediately after Srebrenica fell to the Bosnian Serb army, the charge met Mr Milosevic and conveyed the US government view that it was time for Serbia to exercise pressure on Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb general who led the assault.

The response was a slap in the face to the US. "Milosevic was told it was time he got Mladic on a leash," said one European diplomat. "He replied that he was unable to put any pressure on Mladic, with whom he was in only intermittent contact - goodbye."

The view now of some American officials monitoring events in Bosnia is that Jacques Chirac, the French President, has displayed the right instinct in calling for the UN forces in Bosnia finally to deploy their military strength around Sarajevo.

One State Department official drew attention also to what he described as the critical role played by the Dutch soldiers manning the Unprofor garrison in Srebrenica when the Bosnian Serb army attacked.

"The Dutch deserve a lot of credit. It was just a thin blue line of 350 soldiers confronting the large Bosnian Serb force and they could have called for the allies to come and rescue them. It was a critical moment because if they had said 'get us out' it would have marked the beginning of the UN withdrawal. But they stayed with their obligation to the civilians. The Dutch perspective was a reality check that pulled the Contact Group together, showing what needs to be done and what can be done."

The official said Srebrenica would guarantee that the UN Rapid Reaction Force became an enforcement mechanism, beginning with an attempt to lift the siege of Sarajevo by clearing the road over Mount Igman."The French will help open up the road with whatever it takes. They'll send a message over the next couple of days about drawing the line, using military force so the Bosnian Serbs think twice about not coming to the negotiating table."