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NEWS ANALYSIS : Conflicting Approaches to Ending Balkans War Forge Odd Alliances

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a case of strange bedfellows, the United States and Serbia are now both at work trying to bring peace to the Balkans by eliminating the Bosnian Serbs’ huge military advantage over their victims.

In an even stranger collaboration, Britain and the United Nations seem to be trying to save the rebels from that fate.

Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic has already cut off fuel and weaponry to his former allies, and President Clinton vowed Thursday to push to exempt the Muslim-led Bosnian government from a U.N. arms embargo if the Bosnian Serbs have not accepted a peace plan by Oct. 15.

The theory, say Western diplomats, is that if the Bosnian Serbs can no longer fight with the confidence of a heavy weapons advantage and a reliable supply of ammunition, they will be vulnerable to government counterattacks and presumably more willing to give up some captured land in return for peace.

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But just as international efforts to force the Bosnian Serbs to comply appeared in sync, the U.N. Protection Force headquartered in this Croatian capital has weighed in to ease rebel fears of a comeuppance.

British Lt. Gen. Michael Rose, commander of U.N. troops in Bosnia-Herzegovina, has warned the Sarajevo government that it might face punitive air strikes if it takes advantage of the Bosnian Serbs’ isolation by trying to recover territory seized by the rebels over the past 28 months.

The civilian bureaucracy of the U.N. mission is also acting to ease Bosnian Serb concerns that the international community is taking sides.

Mission spokesman Michael Williams said any move to lift the arms embargo would compel a withdrawal of U.N. forces, which would unleash “disastrous” consequences for civilians in Bosnia.

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With no protective cordon of peacekeepers between Bosnian Serb heavy weapons and poorly defended enclaves such as Gorazde, Srebrenica and Zepa, the rebels could unleash a fierce artillery assault against the last Muslims in eastern Bosnia.

“Given that lifting of the arms embargo would be designed to help one party and be aimed at another party, that would make it quite difficult for (the U.N. force) to remain in Bosnia,” Williams said, adding that contingency plans for a pullout were being speeded up in the wake of Clinton’s appeal.

The issue of a pullout has exposed yet another rift within the international community over Bosnia, this time between the military peacekeepers on the ground and the diplomatic peacemakers at work on a settlement.

“Every time the international community, via the (U.N.) Security Council or NATO, is finally on the verge of pressuring the Bosnian Serbs hard, (the U.N. force) comes up with something to balance things out,” a senior Western diplomat observed.

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Bosnian government leaders welcomed Clinton’s call to arm them, even if the peacekeepers leave as a result. But Muslim civilians, especially those in the Serbian-encircled eastern enclaves, probably fear they would be overrun by the rebels before weapons could reach them.

Rose has repeatedly insisted the 20,000 U.N. troops deployed in Bosnia would be targets of angry Bosnian Serb retaliation if the arms embargo is lifted.

Sources within the U.N. hierarchy and the diplomatic community say Rose places a higher priority on getting British forces out of the dangerous peacekeeping mission than he does on securing a settlement of the conflict.

Forcing through a peace plan also appears a secondary goal at U.N. headquarters, where Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali has likewise observed publicly that the Balkans mission may have to be scrapped for security reasons, no matter what the outcome of the negotiations.

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The peace plan drafted by the United States, Russia, Britain, France and Germany would divide Bosnia roughly in half, giving 49% to the Bosnian Serb insurgents who now occupy more than 70%, and the slightly larger part to a federation of Croats, Muslims and Bosnian Serb proponents of integration.

Federation officials have accepted the plan as the most the outside world is willing to ensure them, while rebels loyal to Bosnian Serb nationalist Radovan Karadzic have steadfastly refused to give up any territory in exchange for peace.

Karadzic’s spurning of the peace plan has angered Milosevic, whose own country and Montenegro, the junior partner in the rump Yugoslavia, are staggering under the stiff economic sanctions imposed for instigating the Bosnian conflict. In an effort to get sanctions relief, Milosevic has joined the effort to force Karadzic to agree to make peace.

When the peace proposal was being drafted, Western officials raised the prospect of North Atlantic Treaty Organization bombings if either side rejected their formula for division. But Russia is reluctant to target traditional Slav allies, and Britain and France fear any use of force against the Serbs will expose their peacekeepers to retaliation.

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The U.N. force “suffers from the Stockholm syndrome,” the senior Western diplomat commented, referring to the psychological phenomenon of hostages who grow to sympathize with their captors. “They are surrounded by the Serbs. They know the Serbs could kill them. So who do they side with? The Sarajevo government that is in the same boat? No. They side with the Serbs because they don’t want to upset the side that would kill them.”

Diplomats from troop-contributing countries acknowledge the dilemma but excuse its consequences for the peace plan as the price for protecting the lives of their soldiers.

“It’s not the fault of (the U.N. force) that the world cannot make peace in the Balkans,” said an envoy from one country with troops in Bosnia. “They have been sent into the middle of a raging war and told to keep still until the outside world decides what to do about it. They are a human shield against the spread of the conflict, and an ineffectual one at that.”


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