Serbs' heavy artillery on the move in Bosnia

April 28, 1994|By DAN FESPERMAN | DAN FESPERMAN,SUN STAFF CORRESPONDENT

SARAJEVO -- Not long after the guns of Sarajevo fell silent in February, people 35 miles away in the city of Gorazde noticed an ominous change. The sporadic Serbian shelling they'd grown used to became more frequent and forceful, and by the end of March they'd been driven to their cellars. It was the beginning of a four-week bombardment.

"They had used some heavy artillery before, but never in these amounts," said Nazif Dzenelovic, wounded in the chest and brought here in the evacuation of the wounded. "They were using every possible weapon that you could imagine -- rocket launchers, tanks and howitzers."

Mr. Dzenelovic thinks he knows where the Serbs got the extra firepower, and United Nations officials privately share his theory. "It's obvious that they took some of the heavy guns from around Sarajevo and moved them to Gorazde," he said.

Where next?

That's why, now that Gorazde is quiet, U.N. officials and Bosnian Muslims are wondering where the Serbs will take their big guns )) next. NATO and the United Nations attempted to limit the possible new targets with their latest ultimatum to the Serbs, extending the threat of air strike retaliation beyond Gorazde and Sarajevo to cover the other four U.N. "safe areas" in Bosnia, the Muslim enclaves of Tuzla, Bihac, Srebrenica and Zepa.

But that still leaves the Serbs with a strategically valuable target -- a narrow corridor in northeast Bosnia running through the Serb-held city of Brcko (pronounced BIRCH-ko). Only a mile wide in some places, the Brcko corridor is the only supply link between Serbia and the territories conquered by Serbian armies in western Bosnia and eastern Croatia.

The Serbs have launched several offensives to try and widen the corridor during the past year, preceding each offensive with radio broadcasts warning of an impending attack by the Bosnian army. Last week, Serbian radio reports out of Belgrade began warning of a new Bosnian attack against Brcko, and with

Serbian weapons headed out of Gorazde, U.N. officials fear the corridor may soon erupt again.

Lt. Gen. Sir Michael Rose, the British commander of the U.N. forces in Bosnia, said yesterday, "We don't know where the [Serbian] weapons are going," now that they're being moved out of Gorazde.

But Bosnian government officials also say Serbian forces are massing near Brcko.

"We are very concerned about what will happen there," U.N. forces spokesman Eric Chaperon said yesterday. "We will try through negotiation to keep it peaceful."

Before the war, Muslims made up nearly half of Brcko's population of 87,000, while Serbs made up only about a fifth. But when Serbian armies took to the city, most of the Muslim #F population moved south to refugee centers in cities such as Tuzla, although Tuzla has also been shelled by the Serbs.

But Muslim villages and the soldiers of the mostly Muslim Bosnian army remain pinched along the edges of the corridor, in strongholds such as the town of Gradacac. If those towns soon come under heavier fire, the people of Gorazde can tell them what to expect.

"Every day seemed a year long," said Mircad Kuljuh, who spent the last week of the bombardment in a basement boiler room of the Gorazde hospital, suffering from chest and stomach wounds while shells destroyed the floors above. "There was constant shelling and sniper fire. They were shooting from tanks, rocket launchers. In the boiler room there were 50 others. It was very dusty, very smelly. There were no windows. And whenever you went to sleep, you wondered if you would wake up again."

Even a NATO-U.N. rescue hasn't guaranteed Gorazde's future, especially among the residents of the small villages on the edges of the city. Most of those people fled to the center of the city and now wonder if they'll ever go back to their homes.

'Their only hope'

"For many of these people, their only hope is to have a chance to go back to these villages and rebuild their homes," said Peter Kessler, spokesman for the U.N. High Commission for Refugees. "There are potentially tens of thousands of displaced persons from the last few weeks of fighting. That will require that Gorazde remain on almost a permanent life support system [from international relief organizations]."

The United Nations has virtually no control over where the Serbs take their guns. When a mid-February ul

timatum stopped the shelling of Sarajevo, the Serbs turned over control of dozens of their bigger weapons to U.N. troops. But in most cases the Serbs simply moved their tanks, mortars and heavier artillery pieces farther away.

U.N. forces keep track of some of these movements with aerial reconnaissance, but officials admit that the tracking is seldom .. precise when weapons are on the move. That's especially true for mortar crews, who can easily melt into villages and wooded hillsides.

Even if the United Nations knew where the guns were going, there is nothing they could do to stop them. As Mr. Chaperon reminded reporters yesterday, "We are not here as combatants, and we are trying to operate with the consent of all parties."

Sergio Vieira de Mello, head of U.N. civil affairs in Bosnia, cautioned, "We cannot keep going from one Gorazde to another. We do not have the means. We need to move to the next step, which is a total cessation of hostilities. . . . We can no longer manage crises of this type in Bosnia-Herzegovina."

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