Isolation used as weapon against Serb-led fighting

May 12, 1992|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Unwilling to use force and unable otherwise to stop the fierce fighting in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the West is playing what may be its last remaining card in the region that once ignited a world war.

It will isolate Serbia.

European Community nations agreed in Brussels yesterday to recall their ambassadors from Belgrade, the Serbian capital and once capital of the now-disintegrated Yugoslavia. It is a step U.S. officials have seriously considered as well.

Meanwhile, the 52-nation Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) seemed close to suspending Serbia from participation if Russia could be persuaded to go along.

The actions came against a backdrop of what the State Department called "vicious" street-by-street fighting in Sarajevo, the Bosnian city where the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand by a Serbian nationalist triggered World War I.

Serbs now control several outlying districts of the capital and there are signs of more ominous developments to come: reports that Serbs are taking a census of nationalities in Sarajevo and predictions that only a few days' worth of food remains.

Heavy fighting elsewhere in the recently declared independent stateof Bosnia-Herzegovina included the first known armed clash between Croatians and Muslims in Busovaca, 30 miles northwest of Sarajevo.

Red Cross workers and EC monitors in Sarajevo said they were on the verge of withdrawing from Bosnia because of the danger from constant artillery bombardments by Serbs and the Serb-led Yugoslav army, Reuters reported. Serb guerrillas launched a rocket attack yesterday on a Muslim village outside Sarajevo from the garden of a hotel where EC monitors are living.

The carnage that has left more than 1,300 people dead in Bosnia since March has stymied international efforts at a lasting cease-fire and put the United States in the position of alternately leading and following.

More than a half-million people are said to have been left homelessas a result of the fighting in the country of 4.3 million.

Serbs make up about a third of the population. The majority are Muslims, who make up almost 44 percent. Ethnic Croats make up about 17 percent of the population.

Secretary of State James A. Baker III made a high-profile series of calls to European counterparts last month in a bid to stop the bloodshed following a plea for help from Bosnia. A State Department envoy was sent to talk to the leaders of broken-up Yugoslavia, along with a few plane loads of emergency supplies.

But since then, U.S. officials have despaired of finding ways to get the Serbs to take notice and have ruled out the use of force, although Washington has formally recognized the independence of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

When Bosnian Foreign Minister Haris Siladzic met yesterday with Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence S. Eagleburger, he was assured of "U.S. support for the borders, territorial integrity and legitimate government of Bosnia-Herzegovina, and U.S. condemnation of the blatant aggression" carried out by the Serbs, according to a department statement.

But U.S. officials, in interviews, made clear that any bid for armed intervention would be rejected.

"We're not going to put our bodies in between the bullets," one official insisted yesterday. Western European powers appear equally reluctant.International economic sanctions are considered unlikely to have any effect in trying to stop the fighting aroused by centuries-old ethnic rivalries.

Instead, the United States has concentrated on getting a consensus within CSCE to ostracize the Serbs, an effort that brought out Austrian, French and Hungarian qualms and finally, Russian opposition.

"You're seeing the CSCE facade for all it's worth," a second U.S. official said.

The Russians, while seeking U.S. aid and showing cooperation on key issues before the United Nations Security Council, have been unwilling to go along with a move against Serbia in the CSCE because they fear a precedent that could be used against them in the future, a U.S. official said.

"They're looking themselves in the face," a U.S. official said of the Russians, whose federation is fraught with ethnic ferment.

The United States has avoided acting on its own and adopted a posture of consensus-building for two reasons, officials said.

One is that it has spent 40 years trying to foster European institutions to handle crises, and these should be tested. The second is the belief that for anything to work, it requires consensus and collective support.

Given the EC's action yesterday, it would be "logical" for the United States to follow suit and withdraw its ambassador, an official said.

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