Blot on a Serbian landscape: For General Mladic, Gorazde is unfinished business. Robert Block and Emma Daly explain its significance

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The Independent Online
BEFORE war broke out in Bosnia, Gorazde hardly merited a full sentence in the guide books. A few mention it in passing as a good place to stay overnight when exploring the River Drina by raft. Others describe the town as if it were a highway marker for motorists driving from the Adriatic coast to Belgrade.

But to the Bosnian Serb military leaders, Gorazde has always been special. Its strategic position along a bend in the Drina made it important for manufacturing and trade. Its munitions factory once produced most of the explosive caps used in Yugoslavia's armaments industry. And, possibly most important, the town sits astride a main highway that connects Serbia with the Adriatic and Montenegro.

Its value was beyond doubt. The Serbs have tried to take control of the town almost since the outbreak of the war. However, despite 24 months of relentless attack, it has remained a blot on the landscape, a territorial stain of stubborn enemy- held territory which only reminded the Serbs that there was unfinished business in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

During the past two months - as international diplomats and the media focused first on the Nato ultimatum to the Serbs encircling Sarajevo and the resulting truce there, and then on the Muslim-Croat ceasefire in central Bosnia - the Bosnian Serbs have been trying to finish that business, not only in Gorazde, but all over Bosnia. First there was an offensive in Maglaj in the north, then attacks on Bihac in the north-west. Finally, two weeks ago, the Serbs renewed the drive against Gorazde.

The UN commander in Bosnia, Lt-Gen Sir Michael Rose, appeared to play down the significance of the offensive, despite increasingly urgent reports from aid workers of heavy shelling in the area, floods of hysterical refugees and panic in the town. Finally, on Saturday, Bosnian Serb forces reached the outskirts, directly threatening a so- called UN 'safe area' and endangering the lives of UN staff in the town. Alarm bells rang, and after warning General Ratko Mladic to cease fire - both by means of a letter and by buzzing his troops with Nato jets - General Rose decided to unleash his heaviest weapon. 'With 20/20 hindsight, you can say he was wrong (to delay the action), but we were working with what information we had,' a source close to the British general said. 'For the last two days we've gone through a series of very fine judgements on where the line lies between peace-keeping, and peace enforcement and war.'

General Mladic's assault came even as the Bosnian government and Serbs were, in the words of one UN source, 'ridiculously close to signing a peace agreement'. But the offensive was just one in a long line of similar operations, made more urgent, perhaps, by the prospect of a frontline frozen around Gorazde. Many UN officials and Western diplomats have described these brutal attacks as part of new mindless Serbian land grab or a cynical attempt by the Bosnian Serb military leadership to punish easy targets for supposed Serbian failures in Sarajevo.

But neither is quite the case. The Serbs have more territory than they want and have always said they were willing to give back land when a final peace deal was reached. Nor is it true to say that the Serbs lost Sarajevo, for they knew they could never take it. If anything, the Nato ultimatum and the Russian involvement in the UN peace-keeping mission have frozen the Serb siege lines while consolidating a de facto division of the Bosnian capital.

So what are the Serbs up to? Milos Vasic, an independent Belgrade military analyst, sees little inconsistency in the latest Serbian war-mongering. 'General Mladic is getting on with his job - improving his lines of communication and destroying the other side's, while all the while trying to secure what territory he already has.'

During three years of war in the former Yugoslavia, first as an army commander in Croatia in 1991 and later as the head of the Bosnian Serb military, General Mladic has had a single strategy: to seize continuous swathes of Serbian territory while at the same time reducing his enemies' holdings to scattered enclaves.

Since General Mladic took command of the Bosnian Serb army in 1992, his troops have pursued the war with persistent ruthlessness, using their overwhelming superiority in firepower with often brutal consequences for Muslim communities caught in the line of fire. Now, with the Serbian siege lines around Sarajevo held firm by UN troops, General Mladic has been able to turn his attention, and his guns, to other territorial 'blots'.

Bihac, Maglaj and Gorazde all fit into this pattern of action: hem in the Muslims and secure broader and safer borders for a nascent Serbian mini-state.

At Bihac, General Mladic appeared to want to seize control of the railway line that runs through the town. The line connects Croatia's two main cities, Zagreb and Split, but also runs through Knin to the south-west, the headquarters of Serb rebels in Croatia.

In Maglaj, the Serbs were trying to push the mainly Muslim Bosnian government forces farther south and create a new corridor connecting Serb-held areas to the north and west with those held in eastern Bosnia and Serbia proper. Eventually the UN stepped in, and after some resistance General Mladic quieted his guns.

The question is whether the general will now call off his forces in Gorazde. His peculiar brand of Balkan chutzpah, combined with his complete dedication to the greater Serbian cause, appears to have made him virtually impervious to the outrage his forces have stirred.

Many are still hopeful, however, that reason will prevail. One source close to General Rose said: 'The air strike was not a pheasant shoot and it was not designed to be. We believe the pressure is such that there will be a period of convoys being blocked and people put at risk, and then they will restart the peace negotiations all over again.'

(Photograph omitted)