Serbs know just where the line is and cross it

April 27, 1994|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Sun Staff Writer

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina -- As Bosnian Serb soldiers halted their attack on the besieged city of Gorazde last weekend, they didn't exactly leap to comply with a NATO ultimatum to retreat or else.

Not only were they slow to move their men and artillery, but they blocked convoys of food and first aid. While pulling back, they destroyed homes and burned a water purification plant. Even now, United Nations officials say, a few Serbian soldiers remain in the heart of the city, a zone they were supposed to have evacuated by Sunday.

Any of those transgressions technically would be enough to justify NATO air attacks against Serbian forces, as spelled out in the ultimatum, U.N. officials say. But as last night's deadline passed for the withdrawal of all Serbian heavy weapons to at least 12.4 miles from the center of the city, U.N. and NATO officials seemed satisfied that it would not be necessary to launch punitive attacks.

The Serbs' behavior in the days leading up to the deadline was the latest demonstration of an increasingly familiar tactic -- knowing exactly how much mischief and mayhem they can get away with without bringing retaliation from the reluctant Western powers.

In meeting NATO's February ultimatum to silence heavy weapons around Sarajevo, the Serbs were still hauling weapons within the 12.4 mile "exclusion zone" as the deadline passed, after dawdling for several days. U.N. officials decided to reward good intentions instead of punishing technical violations, and Sarajevo has remained generally quiet ever since.

But the Serbs have piled up more serious violations of the Sarajevo restrictions without incurring penalties. Last week, they seized 18 anti-aircraft guns that had been placed under U.N. control. They later returned them. They also stole back one of their tanks from under the noses of U.N. troops.

In the past two days, U.N. forces have cited at least two more Serbian tanks rumbling through the Sarajevo exclusion zone and a truck hauling an anti-aircraft gun.

But most irritating to U.N. officials is that the Serbs continue to block the movement of U.N. peacekeeping troops in and around Sarajevo, in defiance of the restrictions.

In Gorazde, Serbian defiance began with the approach of the first deadline on Sunday to remove all troops and heavy weapons from within two miles of the city center.

By late last night, some Serbian troops were still inside the city, U.N. officials said.

The officials seem willing to excuse the tardiness, saying that some Serb units were in positions they could not easily retreat from.

After departing troops destroyed the city's water treatment plant, international aid organizations rushed to set up new pumping stations and water tanks, while delivering chlorine tablets and power for treating dirty water.

A convoy loaded with food and drinking water was stopped short of Gorazde Monday by Serbian soldiers. The trucks finally reached the city yesterday.

"They are playing games, and this is not according to the agreement," said Peter Kessler, a spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

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