In a stunning reversal of battlefield fortunes, government and Croatian forces have taken large chunks of Serb-held land in northwest Bosnia and are now holding half the country, U.N. officials said Monday. But the government also came under increasing pressure to restrain itself lest the offensive derail the fledgling U.S. peace initiative.
As the U.N. secretary general forecast the end of the peacekeeping mission in the former Yugoslav federation, Bosnia-Herzegovina's U.S. and British allies, as well as the United Nations, warned Bosnia of the risks of overrunning the rebel bastion of Banja Luka, the largest and most important city in Serb-held territory.
Bosnian Foreign Minister Muhamed Sacirbey, in an effort to defuse the situation, announced that his government is willing to enter into "political dialogue" with the "reasonable leaders" of Banja Luka. But his offer sounded like a call for Banja Luka to surrender, and the government gave no indication that it wanted to halt the offensive.
The advances being made by government and Croatian forces were unimaginable just weeks ago, when the outgunned Bosnian army was cast as the underdog. But two weeks of NATO air strikes helped turn the tide by weakening the formidable Bosnian Serb army, reducing its mobility and throwing it into disarray.
Adding to the confusion, Gen. Ratko Mladic, the commander of the Bosnian Serb army who often directs military operations personally, has dropped out of sight and is reported to be in a hospital in Belgrade, the Serbian and Yugoslav capital, recovering from kidney-stone surgery.
With Mladic out of the picture and NATO warplanes overhead, government forces and their Croatian allies pushed deep into Serb-held northern and western Bosnia.
U.N. spokesman Lt. Col. Chris Vernon said Monday that territory appeared to be divided roughly 50-50 between the Bosnian Serbs and a federation of the Muslim-led Bosnian government and Bosnian Croats. Three weeks ago, the Serbs held 70% of the country, most of which they seized early in the war.
Under current international plans for settling the war, Bosnia would be divided 51%-49% between the Muslim-Croat federation and the Serbs, respectively.
Bosnian state television reported Monday night that Muslim-Croat forces had seized another 36 square miles around Mt. Ozren in central Bosnia on Monday, adding to the 2,400 square miles--slightly more than 12% of Bosnia--that they say they've captured in the past week.
Ferid Buljubasic of the Bosnian army's general staff said government troops had captured enough Serbian weaponry to arm two infantry brigades, plus artillery and tank companies.
The air strikes were halted Thursday for 72 hours to let the Serbs meet NATO and U.N. demands to withdraw their heavy guns from around Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital. The rebels began complying, and late Sunday they won another 72 hours to finish up.
Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, the region's powerbroker and the chief peace negotiator for the Bosnian Serbs, added his voice Monday to those demanding an end to the Bosnian-Croat offensive, calling for an immediate cessation of hostilities in Bosnia.
The advances worry Western officials--especially the Americans who have been shepherding a peace plan that seems to have moved the parties to a point closer to resolution than they have been in 41 months of war.
In Washington, the Clinton Administration urged the Bosnian army and its Croatian allies to end their offensive and seek their objectives at the peace table. But officials made it clear that the United States is not ready to threaten sanctions against the government or the Croats if they ignore the advice and continue their offensive.
State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns said U.S. peace envoy Richard Holbrooke will meet in Zagreb, the Croatian capital, today with Croatian President Franjo Tudjman and Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic to make the case for ending the offensive.
"Now is not the time to escalate the war," Burns said. "It is time to turn toward peace and to the peace conference that . . . we in the West hope to engineer."
Burns conceded that neither the government nor the Croats are taking Washington's advice.
U.N. officials expressed concern that the Bosnian government, giddy with its gains, will be less cooperative in negotiations and will refuse to go along with a cease-fire.
"They know they're in a strong position, that there's no NATO ultimatum against them, no air strikes to be used against them," said a U.N. military officer.
British Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind, in Sarajevo to meet with government officials, cautioned that only a political settlement will bring stability.
British officials suggested that an attack on Banja Luka would draw Milosevic's Serbia into the war and trigger a wave of hundreds of thousands of refugees that would overwhelm Southern Europe.
Banja Luka--with Muslim-Croat troops reported just 30 miles away--was already starting to panic Monday. Tens of thousands of Bosnian Serb refugees began plodding eastward toward Serbia.
At the United Nations, Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali envisioned a total withdrawal of his peacekeepers from Bosnia as he proposed that a multinational force take over whether or not a peace agreement is signed.
In a letter to the Security Council, the secretary general said that, since the United Nations does not have the resources to implement a peace agreement, that job should be taken over by "an ad hoc coalition of member states, acting as appropriate with regional organizations or arrangements." This amounted to an endorsement of the American plan to use the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to police any settlement in Bosnia.
Times staff writers Norman Kempster and Stanley Meisler in Washington contributed to this report.