Some Serb besiegers itching for a fight

February 15, 1994|By Dusko Doder | Dusko Doder,Special to The Sun

SARAJEVO -- The Serbian soldiers seem to be itching for a fight as they sit in a front-line bunker in the snow-covered Trebevic hills above Sarajevo. They expect NATO air strikes and boast about the frenzy of fighting the air strikes would unleash.

"Our commander is a brave man. He has already been reprimanded [for being too zealous]," said Uros, a 19-year-old Serbian soldier, who, like his comrades, will not give his last name. "If there is an attack, neither he nor anybody else is going to listen to the top commanders. We are going to fight."

Among the Serbs were two Russians, one from Siberia and the other from Ukraine, both apparently here for no greater reason than a Slavic connection and a desire to fight.

Oleg, a Russian veteran of military clashes in Georgia, revealed several metal teeth as he smiled. He was wearing military fatigues and a black beret with the old royal Serbian symbol. He said that there had been 10 Russians in his unit but that since Jan. 6 three had been killed and two wounded.

"If a single Russian dies in air strikes, I'm going to go out and kill everyone I can," he vowed.

Further up on the mountain roads, used for the 1984 Sarajevo Winter Olympics but now Serbian-held territory, Serbian soldiers behind gun emplacements were similarly defiant.

"You see that house behind us?" asked one, pointing to a red-tiled, three-story home with wood piled up outside for winter fires. "That's my home. I am defending my home. NATO is asking me to give that up. How can I? It's my life."

The hard line was shared by military and other officials in the Serbian stronghold of Pale, a desolate mountain suburb of wooden holiday homes that is effectively the Bosnian Serb seat of government.

The officials said over the weekend that they would refuse to comply with NATO's ultimatum to remove heavy guns to a distance of about 12 miles from Sarajevo by midnight Sunday unless the United Nations guaranteed that it would prevent any attack by Muslim infantry on Serbian positions. The Serbs fear an offensive by Muslim forces, which they number at around 40,000 to their own 20,000.

"We reject this ultimatum. We never accepted any ultimatum before," said Miroslav Toholj, the Bosnian Serb minister for information. "If the NATO threat is carried out, we would regard it as an organization of international terrorism. . . . The aggression would meet military resistance . . . and the conflict would no doubt spill over into the Balkans and perhaps Europe."

The same defiance is coming from the Serbian capital in Belgrade. Politika, a leading daily newspaper, warned yesterday dire consequences if NATO air strikes are carried out against Serbian positions.

In a commentary titled "Bosnian Vietnam," the paper said that U.S. officials had been publicly warned by Lebanese factions more than a decade ago that U.S. forces would face retaliatory actions in Lebanon, as they eventually did in the bombing of a Marine barracks that left 241 Marines dead.

Bosnian Serb military and political leaders have repeatedly said that the seizure of U.N. peacekeeping troops and foreign humanitarian aid workers would be among the first responses to NATO attack.

"We would not kill them, but we would detain them," said Col. Komnen Zarkovic, a senior Defense Ministry official.

"If NATO planes start hitting Serb positions . . . there is no politician in Serbia who could prevent retribution of angry soldiers who would be targets to Western bombs," Politika said.

Detailed preparations have been made to respond to air strikes. The Serbs say they have sophisticated radar equipment in a monitoring station on the top of Mount Jahorina, about 6,000 feet high. Some 30 to 40 people work around the clock in the slate-gray dome that is inaccessible by road in the winter. They claim to be able to track all planes within a radius that covers Italy, Austria, Hungary and Bulgaria.

"NATO planes have already been in training, and we have been tracking them," Colonel Zarkovic said. "On one day last week, our radar picked up 120 overflights."

The colonel acknowledged the possibility that the Serbian guns could be withdrawn.

"We can do it without serious problems," he said, provided that the United Nations ensures that the withdrawal would not touch off a new Muslim infantry offensive against Serbian positions.

Because of the mountainous terrain, according to one spokesman, NATO planes would have to fly low and at slow speeds, making them vulnerable to anti-aircraft missiles that the Serbs would not hesitate to use. The Bosnian Serb minister of information claimed the defense arsenal was "far greater than has been shown so far," and included Stinger surface-to-air missiles.

Behind all the rhetoric and bravado, the Serbs are making a desperate attempt to circumvent the NATO ultimatum.

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