The Bosnia Crisis: Will they stick to their guns?: Serbs around Sarajevo believe they can either defy Western air strikes or be crushed by Muslims; The Showdown

THE ROAD to the front line winds down the snowy slopes of Mt Trebevic, past the gun emplacements and the bunkers of chain-smoking Bosnian Serb soldiers, until it reaches the shell-battered buildings of Grbavica, one of the main Serb- held districts of Sarajevo and foremost killing zone.

Until last week, walking in Grbavica in sight of snipers and in range of artillery fire was - like walking anywhere else in Sarajevo - the pedestrian equivalent of Russian roulette. Sixty-eight shoppers played the game on 5 February in the Markale market in the Muslim part of the city and lost, victims of a disputed mortar attack.

More than 10,000 people, 80 per cent of them civilians, have died in 22 months of war in Sarajevo, many in attacks similar in kind, but not in scale, to last week's. Yet the secondary explosion of media coverage and the shockwave of public disgust at the carnage from the 120mm mortar round finally shook the West out of nearly two years of dithering complacency over Bosnian suffering.

Despite Nato's ultimatum to the warring parties, the final consequences of the mortar blast heard around the world are still unclear. Will the Serbs quit their guns around Sarajevo? Or will they call Nato's bluff and force the West to open a bloody new chapter in the conflict? Will UN troops become another protagonist in a four- sided war?

For the moment, the streets of Sarajevo have gone quiet, as a ceasefire worked out by the UN force commander in Bosnia, Lt-Gen Sir Michael Rose, has a tenuous hold. Meanwhile, not far off in the skies above the Adriatic, Nato planes are practising attack runs and counting down to the 21 February deadline for Serbs and Muslims either to have withdrawn or handed over their heavy field guns to the UN. Two pilots survived yesterday when a US Navy 'Tomcat' fighter crashed into the Adriatic after a midair collision with another jet from the aircraft carrier Saratoga.

By Friday night UN soldiers in Sarajevo were happily reporting that the Muslims had so far surrendered to the UN at least five weapons, including a 120mm mortar. For their part, the Serbs relinquished at least 13 weapons, including artillery pieces and a rocket launcher. Although this represents a fraction of the weapons in and around Sarajevo, the development was hailed as an encouraging start.

'It's a very heartening first step. Whether we have gotten ourselves back from the brink is another matter. Give us some time yet,' a UN observer in Sarajevo said. However, no further weapons were surrendered under the disengagement plan yesterday. 'I can't tell why . . . the negotiations between the parties are continuing,' an Unprofor spokesman said.

Serbs living in front-line districts of Sarajevo such as Vogosca, Lukavica and, of course, Grbovica are feeling especially vulnerable. If Nato planes unleash their payloads against Bosnian Serb guns in and around Sarajevo some time next week, then these areas just below the Serbian artillery emplacements will be in the line of fire. Stray bombs and rockets could turn residents into 'collateral damage', the military euphemism for unintended civilian casualties.

But the Nato planes are not the main concern of Serbs living close to the front lines. They have seen Western threats of air strikes come and go before, while the Muslims have remained determined to fight on. As far as they are concerned, while Nato bombs might kill them, Muslim soldiers definitely will; and the only thing that stands between them and certain death is Serbian artillery.

Their leader, Radovan Karadzic, underlined this fear in Geneva yesterday. Confirming that his forces would withdraw the big guns from Sarajevo, he insisted Muslim infantry must be controlled.

'I am against pulling the artillery back,' said Vladanka, a 30-year-old housewife from Miljevici, a village on the outskirts of Grbavica, just two miles from Sarajevo. 'No one should let this happen, so that they (Muslims) can just come into our homes and kill us.'

'We need the artillery to stop the advance of the Muslims,' said Maja, a 35-year-old woman who lives with her family in Grbovica, while her husband serves on the front line. 'If they take away our artillery then the Muslims will come here. And if the Muslims are capable of slaughtering their own people, like they did in the market last week, imagine what they will do to us.'

To the outside observer, these Serbian accusations that the Muslims blew up their own people in Sarajevo last week to score a propaganda victory and to force the international community to retaliate, smack of incredible cynicism and callousness. But to the Serbs, historical myth is in many ways more important than historical fact.

It was virtually impossible to turn on the television set or open a newspaper last week without being confronted by some so-called Serbian expert expounding on myriad theories to explain what killed 68 people in the market last week.

The UN, while unable to say with any certainty who launched the attack, has discounted the Serb assertions, insisting it was a 120mm mortar shell which caused the damage and that there was no evidence that the Bosnian Muslims have ever attacked their own people. The depth to which the Bosnian Serb leadership believes its own theories was underscored in Geneva on Thursday, when Mr Karadzic threatened to pull out of the latest round of peace talks unless an independent commission was formed, including Serbs, to investigate the market massacre.

For the Serbs the question of responsibility is more than just a ploy aimed at seizing the moral high ground or stalling Nato air attacks. It is a central tenet of their belief that they should not withdraw their guns and that Nato bombing raids are destined to backfire.

The Bosnian Serbs are convinced that they are unqualified victims of history who are now being unjustly crucified by the Islamic world and Serbia's traditional allies in the West, who have been bribed by oil-rich Arabs to oppose them. Thus, convinced of a world conspiracy, they would almost welcome further proof of their martyrdom. Nato air strikes, especially for what Serbs would interpret as retaliation for a crime they did not commit, will provide them with a martyrdom in spades.

In a similar vein, Bosnian Serb generals, aware of the power of Serbian myths, and exasperated by 12 months of on- again, off-again air strike threats, may also be willing to run the risk of provoking Nato air attacks, in the belief that they will emerge relatively unscathed. Knowing that the West would then be faced with the alternative of either sending in ground troops or widening bombing raids - which Serbs rightly believe they are unlikely to do - there are several Bosnian military leaders who think they have more to gain by not giving up their guns.

At the same time, what the Serbs really want is for the Muslims to agree to a peace deal which would allow the Serbs to consolidate their military victories and end the war. Satisfied with the 66 per cent of Bosnia- Herzegovina now under their control, most Serbs are willing to try to avoid more fighting. And on the last few occasions when the Serbs have had to choose between air strikes and relocating their troops, they have opted for the latter - but only after a great deal of posturing and bluster.

But it is the popular feeling of such people as Maja and Vladanka, and other Serbs struggling in the ruins of Serb- held Sarajevo, that matters most to the Bosnian Serb generals and politicians, and their feelings cannot be ignored completely. Looking out over Mt Trebevic from a bunker above Grbovica, 32-year-old Dragisa said last week: 'If air strikes happen, they happen. We are sure there is going to be some bombing to show that the world can keep its promises. There should be a just settlement or a military showdown . . . The Serbs will be destroyed if the artillery goes, that's all we have.'

(Photograph omitted)

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