Srebrenica expected to fall to Serbs today Muslims negotiate safety for 60,000

April 16, 1993|By New York Times News Service

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina -- United Nations officials said last night that Bosnian defenders were negotiating a surrender to Serbian forces of the besieged Muslim enclave at Srebrenica that would guarantee the safe evacuation of the 60,000 Muslim civilians there and of the beleaguered garrison.

The officials said Srebrenica could be in Serbian hands as early as noon today, and at any rate within two or three days, since Bosnian efforts to defend the city appeared to have virtually collapsed.

Srebrenica has been in a state of chaos for weeks. Thousands of homeless Muslim refugees have jammed the city's streets, food shortages have threatened mass starvation, and hundreds of seriously wounded people have overwhelmed the city's only hospital, which has only two surgeons.

"The Serbs are moving in fast, and the Bosnian forces are trying to negotiate a settlement," a U.N. official said at mid-evening, as Serbian forces advanced to within 2,000 yards of the city center on its southern and southeastern side.

The U.N. official said that contacts between the two forces, through the small U.N. military detachment in Srebrenica, were aimed at a surrender that would avoid a massacre of the kind that has followed the Serbian capture of other predominantly Muslim towns and villages in the year of fighting in Bosnia.

The imminent fall of Srebrenica -- after a Serbian artillery attack Monday that killed 56 civilians, including 15 children who were at a soccer game in a schoolyard -- was accompanied by another surge in the battle for Sarajevo. Serbian gunners renewed their bombardment of the capital with artillery, tank and anti-aircraft fire at mid-evening.

Srebrenica's fall has seemed inevitable since Serbian forces began a new offensive a month ago. They first agreed to demands by the U.N. military commander in Bosnia, Lt. Gen. Philippe Morillon, for a cease-fire, then broke the truce.

Since Monday's attack, Western governments and U.N. commanders here have renewed demands that the Serbian forces observe the cease-fire that Serbian political and military leaders promised three weeks ago.

But Serbian commanders have ignored the appeals, refusing to take telephone calls from General Morillon or telling him through aides that they are not available.

For General Morillon, the likelihood of Srebrenica's falling to the Serbian forces has been a major blow. After the Serbian commanders promised to halt their attacks, the French general, who had gone to the town to show his support, made what U.N. aides have called a "tactical mistake," leaving Srebrenica to resume his command in Sarajevo.

In doing so, he was following the orders of more senior U.N. officials, including Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, who had been critical of General Morillon, saying privately that he had no authority to try to save Srebrenica.

Once he was back in Sarajevo, General Morillon found himself under tight constraint by the overall commander of U.N. forces in the former Yugoslavia, Lt. Gen. Lars-Eric Wahlgren, a Swede who took over his post last month after transferring from a U.N. command in Lebanon.

The ensuing tug-of-war between the two officers led to a announcement by France this week that General Morillon will leave his command in Bosnia next month.

As long as he remained in the city, Serbian forces appeared reluctant to make a final assault, a move that would have risked killing the U.N. commander. But as soon as he left the town, Serbian forces made sure that he could not return.

A week ago, when Serbian forces resumed heavy shelling of Srebrenica, General Morillon demanded that General Wahlgren agree to his returning to the city, and set out at short notice from Sarajevo.

But when he was about 15 miles from the city, his French armored vehicle was attacked by a crowd of 300 Serbian civilians, who virtually destroyed it by hammering steel spikes into its bulletproof windows, slashing the tires, ripping off its radio aerials and U.N. flags, and trying dismantle its machine gun.

The continuing Serbian offensive underscored the powerlessness of the U.N. forces to prevent or even effectively discourage Serbian commanders, who appear to have decided that there is no readiness among Western governments to take actions that could halt the Serbian drive to seize more Bosnian territory.

Most senior U.N. commanders believe that nothing short of a Western ultimatum, backed with the threat of military force, can stop Serbian commanders from seizing Srebrenica.

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