Bosnian government forces fail to break through Serbian lines around Sarajevo Gloom casts a pall on besieged capital

August 02, 1992|By John F. Burns | John F. Burns,New York Times News Service

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina -- After a military offensive that failed to break the Serbian siege lines around Sarajevo, Bosnian government troops fell back yesterday to a city plunged in gloom over the heavy costs of the abortive breakout and the narrowing options that the failure appeared to have left to the city's defenders.

After 36 hours of intensive fighting on the hills to the north of the city, the battle subsided yesterday with Serbian nationalist forces still hemming the Bosnians in as they have since the siege began nearly four months ago.

The Bosnian forces, fighting with light weapons against the heavy guns of the Serbs, appear to have made only modest inroads into the Serbian lines, and at a devastating cost to themselves.

The Serbian forces, responding as they have to every Bosnian drive to open a corridor across the mountains that encircle the city, bombarded Sarajevo relentlessly throughout Thursday night and Friday. Their artillery, mortar and tank fire struck in apparently random fashion throughout the city, blasting houses, apartment buildings and college residences and causing what officials at the city morgue said were the highest casualties of any day of the siege.

The scene at the morgue, part of the Kosevo Hospital complex that nestles on the hillside within sight of the fighting, was gruesome. Attendants showed reporters a register with the names of 40 people who had been killed Friday, about half of them civilians, including several women and a 6-year-old girl who had been decapitated by a mortar blast. The attendants said the morgue had received 10 to 15 bodies each day since the siege began in April.

While groups gathered at Lion Cemetery nearby for the burials of eight soldiers and four civilians, 24 other soldiers lay in the morgue, still dressed in combat boots and camouflage fatigues. Most of them were killed by what appeared to have been artillery and mortar blasts.

A group of military men who arrived at the morgue at midafternoonin search of missing men said 100 to 150 Bosnian fighters had been killed in the offensive and that many of the bodies were still lying in the hills.

Meanwhile, the Associated Press reported that a bus carrying 50 orphans was hit by anti-aircraft fire last night, killing a 2-year-old retarded girl and a 1-year-old boy.

The children had been waiting for six days to be evacuated to Germany and had been unable to fly out because the airport was closed by heavy fighting.

Feelings yesterday in Sarajevo, optimistic in the early hours of the attack, were dismal as word filtered through about the extent of the losses.

"You want the truth? This is the truth!" one young woman exclaimed to a reporter who attended the funeral of four soldiers, Muslim men 23 to 48 years old who had joined the Bosnian forces as volunteers.

Scores of fellow fighters in fatigues, some with automatic weapons in their hands, crowded around as the bodies, wrapped in white sheets and laid upon wooden pallets, were lowered into the graves.

Although the Bosnian fighters said the offensive had carried them to the edges of Vogosca, a Serbian-held outpost about eight miles northwest of the center of Sarajevo, it seems clear that the breakout had been a strategic failure. The handful of heavy guns captured by the Bosnians did not change the Serbian forces' huge superiority in arms, and the few new positions gained by the Bosnians are highly vulnerable to other Serbian gun sites that command the northern hills.

Worse, from the viewpoint of the Bosnian government and the 400,000 Sarajevo residents enduring the siege, the Serbs' success in blocking a Bosnian breakthrough appears to have --ed, at least for now, the one hope that had sustained morale here.

After two months of unavailing appeals for Western military intervention to halt the siege, or for supplies of arms and ammunition to offset the Serbian advantage, the government of President Alija Izetbegovic had resolved in the last 10 days to fight its way out.

As the offensive bogged down, top government officials sounded almost desperate. Mr. Izetbegovic, in an interview with the British Broadcasting Corp. on Friday night, said the course urged by the 12-nation European Community -- that the government abandon attempts to fight its way out of the siege and accept a negotiated peace -- was impossible.

"A cease-fire, if it means consolidation of such a situation, of occupation, is not acceptable to us, because it means slavery," Mr. Izetbegovic said. In any event, he said, he would not negotiate with Radovan Karadzic, the psychiatrist who leads the Serbian nationalists in Bosnia.

In his campaign for "ethnic cleansing," a Serbian practice in which tens of thousands of Muslims have been killed and nearly a million others driven from their homes, Mr. Izetbegovic said, Mr. Karadzic was as bad as Hitler.

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