Bosnian Rebels Crack Facade of Serb Unity
Bosnian Serb nationalists dealt a third and final blow to an international peace plan Wednesday, angering their last friends in the world and cracking a facade of Serbian unity.
The rebels’ obstinacy in the face of threats from patrons in Serbia and Russia to sever all ties illustrated the virulence of the nationalist fever incubated by Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic when he instigated the Balkan conflict with his rallying cry of unity for all Serbs in one state.
The defiant rejection came amid what U.N. peacekeepers said was a dramatic increase in artillery, mortar and machine-gun fighting in and around the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo.
Gunmen loyal to Bosnian Serb warlord Radovan Karadzic also warned peacekeepers that they were preparing to seize weapons now under U.N. guard. That pronouncement seemed an ominous sign the artillery bombardment of Sarajevo could soon resume in full fury after five months of relative peace produced by a North Atlantic Treaty Organization threat to break the siege with air strikes.
British Lt. Gen. Michael Rose, commander of U.N. forces in Bosnia-Herzegovina, vowed to use all available means, including air strikes, to prevent rebel recapture of the impounded weapons.
“Gen. Rose made very clear to the (Bosnian) Serbs that . . . he would use force to keep the weapons inside the collection points,” U.N. Protection Force spokeswoman Claire Grimes told journalists in Sarajevo.
But the eruption of hostilities has sparked fears of a looming showdown in the 28-month-old war that may compel the hesitant, ineffectual peacekeepers to pull out.
Rose has repeatedly said further use of air power to deter Serbian aggression would place his troops in jeopardy of being taken hostage or subjected to retaliatory fire.
After rejecting the peace plan in the most defiant terms to date, the self-appointed Bosnian Serb parliament on Wednesday called for a referendum on the proposal on Aug. 27-28.
The deputies expect to underscore their objections to the settlement by turning out a captive, highly manipulated vote, which they can then brandish as proof they had no alternative but to reject the peace plan.
Because the 1 million or so people living in Serbian-controlled areas have access only to media controlled by the Karadzic forces, they are widely expected to parrot whatever opinion on the peace plan their leaders espouse.
Karadzic and ultranationalists in the rogue Bosnian Serb leadership have split with Milosevic over the passionate issue of whether their conquered lands can be annexed to a Greater Serbia.
Milosevic masterminded the deadly drive for an expanded Serbian state but has been pressured by stiff U.N. economic sanctions against his country to ponder concessions that would allow a negotiated settlement of the war.
The five-nation peace plan would give Serbian nationalists rule over almost half of Bosnia, but it precludes union with the Serbian state in its prohibition against any change to the internationally recognized borders. Allied Bosnian Muslims and Croats who would get 51% of the republic’s territory have endorsed the proposed partition.
Milosevic had threatened to cut off all support for his Bosnian Serb proxies if they continued to reject the peace plan, which he described as a fair formula for ending the worst bloodshed in Europe since World War II.
But Karadzic and the lawmakers of the so-called Bosnian Serb Republic issued a categorical rejection when they met in their mountain stronghold of Pale to weigh the latest pressures applied by their patrons. They had already vetoed the plan on July 19 and again last Thursday.
In a statement issued by their SRNA news agency, the Bosnian Serbs deemed the proposed territorial split “unacceptable for the Serbian side.”
Russia, a traditional Serbian ally, responded with a swift, unusually harsh rebuke.
A senior diplomat in Moscow announced Russian authorities had “frozen” contacts with the Bosnian Serbs and warned they would face severe consequences if they ignored the advice of their few allies.
The diplomat, who was not identified, suggested Russia was still banking on Milosevic to bring his Bosnian Serb proteges in line.
Despite the Bosnian Serbs’ spurning of his appeal for compromise, Milosevic may find it difficult to follow through on threats to cut off the flow of arms, money and fuel feeding the conflict.
Nationalist hard-liners such as Biljana Plavsic, a deputy to Karadzic, have accused the Serbian strongman of betraying the cause of building an ethnically pure, aggrandized Serbian state.
The view of ultranationalists such as Plavsic and Bosnian Serb military chieftain Ratko Mladic is that Serbs have spilled blood capturing the 70% of Bosnian territory they now hold and to give any away would mean defeat and dishonor.
As the rebels’ sole source of fuel and weapons, Milosevic could easily shut down the war machine if he cinched supply lines. But having stirred up nationalist passions as a means of conquering territory, Milosevic may find himself powerless to elicit a compromise from those he manipulated to see any concession to the goal of Greater Serbia as an act of treason.
Milosevic has threatened in the past to cut off the rebels for scuttling international peace initiatives. The supplies have continued uninterruptedly, however, probably because the Serbian strongman fears a political backlash among nationalists in his own state if he turns on the Serbian warriors he has sponsored in Bosnia and Croatia.
Times staff writer Sonni Efron in Moscow contributed to this report.