'This is an impossible situation' Standoff persists in Eastern Bosnia

March 06, 1993|By Dusko Doder | Dusko Doder,Contributing Writer

BANJA KOVILJACA, Serbia -- It was a painfully familiar sight: A United Nations convoy on its way to save people's lives was being prevented from crossing the Drina River dividing Serbia from Bosnia.

Specially trained Swedish firefighters and paramedics were in the 11 trucks stuck in this godforsaken, snow-swept town. Against all odds, they were still hoping to travel into eastern Bosnia to carry out the wounded from a fresh wave of Serbian ethnic cleansing.

One of them, a strapping man with the size and looks of Arnold Schwarzenegger, spoke in expletives as he kicked his heels in the snowstorm for the third day of waiting. "This is an impossible situation," he said.

It was an understatement. Second-hand reports from ham radio operators were already describing deaths from exposure and injury among more than 1,000 wounded Muslims from the Cerska region whom the Swedish firefighters had hoped to evacuate from eastern Bosnia. The Muslims had fled from Cerska into the nearest town of Konjevic Polje -- only to find it, too, under Serb attack.

For Bosnian Serbs, Eastern Bosnia is crucial territory, second only to the vital northern corridor linking Serbia proper with Serbian enclaves in Western Bosnia and Croatia. Even though the area has been assigned to the Muslims under the peace plan proposed by U.N. representative Cyrus Vance and European representative Lord Owen, Bosnian Serbs regard as vital the task to secure the vulnerable left bank of the Drina River. The only road linking Belgrade and Pale, the Bosnian Serbs' capital, runs through this territory.

According to Western analysts, Bosnian Serbs felt no need earlier to mount operations in this area since their attention was focused on the northern corridor and central areas, including Sarajevo.

"The Serbs have plenty of weapons and artillery. What they are short on is manpower," said one Western diplomat. By preventing aid convoys from reaching isolated Muslim communities in Eastern Bosnia, they hoped to soften up the communities in preparation for an assault to drive out resident Muslims in what's called "ethnic cleansing."

Most U.N. aid convoys trying to take supplies into Bosnia in the past three months have found their way blocked by Bosnian Serb gunmen. U.N. impotence had acted as a spur for recent U.S. airdrops.

The airdrops have put added pressure on Bosnian Serbs, who intensified their Eastern Bosnia offensive that had already begun a month earlier, according to diplomats.

The Bosnian Serbs seemed determined to show they would continue after their offensive after capturing the town of Kamenica and surrounding villages last month. This week, their forces intensified attacks on Cerska and surrounding villages. Reports also spoke of attacks on Konjevic Polje and Srebrenica. The action underscored Serbian determination not to bow to world pressure, particularly from the Americans.

Satellite intelligence combined with on-the-ground U.N. information told the Americans where aid was most needed. But wherever the aid was dropped was where the Serbs moved next, according to Western diplomats in Belgrade. Of the Muslim enclaves in the area, only Zepa was not subjected to a massive Serbian onslaught.

But the Bosnian Serbs scored three major gains in Eastern Bosnia:

* They were able to grab territory, which they can now use as negotiating pieces in talks about the division of Bosnia-Herzegovina into semi-autonomous ethnic regions.

In Belgrade, the consensus in foreign embassies is that the Serbs are on their way to achieving their aims in the Bosnian war. "They've got more real estate than they can handle," said one analyst, "so they can do some bargaining."

* They forced the United Nations to back down on an insistence it would not help the Serbs in ethnic cleansing. The U.N. agreed to take any refugees who wanted to flee.

* They nudged the outside world closer to a possible "Croatia" solution, in which U.N. troops would patrol present confrontation lines.

"There is nothing the Serbs would like better than to see the U.N. now move into Eastern Bosnia and patrol it," said one frustrated Western diplomat. He also threw up his hands at the "mind-boggling" task of trying to find an acceptable solution.

"The only solution that could ease the fighting and bring a certain measure of peace would be to accept the reality, which is that Serbs and Croats have already divided Bosnia up between them," he said. "But we can't do that since it would be tantamount to condoning the genocide against the Muslims. It ++ would also mean changing recognized borders, which we have said we would not do."

A Croatia-style settlement using U.N. troops would almost certainly turn into a disaster. In Croatia, U.N. control of disputed areas has in fact consolidated the Serbs' gains. The cease-fire in Croatia that foresaw the return of refugees to their homes has not been implemented. Serbs in Croatia have become bolder: They are no longer talking just of "autonomy" but of joining with Serbia to become part of a Greater Serbia.

In New York, hopes that the Muslim-led Bosnian government would agree to the provincial map in the U.N. peace package appeared to dwindle yesterday when its U.N. envoy said strong concerns remained.

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