VIENNA — A major assault by Bosnian Serbs against the Muslim enclave of Gorazde broke through the outer defenses of the purported U.N. "safe haven" Tuesday, sending hundreds of terrified civilians fleeing and undermining the credibility of American policy in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
The designation of Gorazde as one of six U.N.-protected zones last May was the Clinton Administration's first significant diplomatic initiative in the conflict in the former Yugoslav federation; the city's fall to the advancing Serbian gunmen would expose the American approach as an empty gesture to avoid intervention, some analysts say.
Bosnian government officials described the situation as critical after Serbian gunmen were said to have broken through defense lines in at least three places around Gorazde and taken more territory along the Drina River that divides it.
Refugees and Bosnian military officials appealed for serious Western efforts to save the city of 65,000, one of only three areas in eastern Bosnia not yet subjected to "ethnic cleansing" by nationalist Serbs.
But the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. John M. Shalikashvili, reiterated in Washington that no American troops will be deployed to Bosnia while fighting continues, and he rejected Bosnian calls for air strikes against the attackers, saying such strikes would be inappropriate in what he described as small-arms fighting.
In a briefing for reporters, Shalikashvili said that while the main threat to Sarajevo--artillery and other heavy weapons, manned by the Serbs--was vulnerable to air power, the major threat in Gorazde is from small-unit action, which is harder to stop from the air.
"Our sensing was (that air power) would not be nearly as effective" in Gorazde as it was around Sarajevo, he said. He also said the allies do not have enough troops in Gorazde to patrol any exclusion zone the United Nations might set up.
His remarks essentially repeated the decision by the allies that Defense Secretary William J. Perry voiced on Sunday: The United States does not plan to send ground troops or aircraft to the area to help rescue the beleaguered city.
But Shalikashvili also said conditions around Gorazde could change at any time, and he pledged that the United States would reconsider its decision.
President Clinton said Monday that the United States would provide air support for U.N. troops if they elected to go into Gorazde. "But it really depends, in part, on what the U.N. mission wants to do there," he said, adding, "We are committed to providing air support to troops if they go in."
At the State Department on Tuesday, spokesman Mike McCurry disputed suggestions that the U.S. refusal to come to the defense of Gorazde might be interpreted as a go-ahead to the Serbs to capture that city as part of a last-ditch land-grab.
McCurry also announced that Charles Redman, the U.S. special envoy to the former Yugoslav republics, is returning to the area for more peace talks with representatives of the three warring factions in Bosnia.
The move followed a telephone conversation between Secretary of State Warren Christopher and Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic. Redman had been called back to Washington to show U.S. displeasure with Bosnia's maneuvering in the talks.
The commander of U.N. forces in Bosnia, British Lt. Gen. Michael Rose, is to try to visit Gorazde today to make his own assessment of Bosnian government claims that the enclave is at risk of being conquered.
Rose commented shortly after the Serbian offensive picked up force over the weekend that he doubted the rebels could overrun Gorazde, which has withstood an artillery siege since the Serbian insurrection began two years ago.
But the U.N. Protection Force has only four military observers posted near Gorazde because of the mission's shortage of troops to carry out the multitude of tasks assigned it by the Security Council.
Rose appealed to Shalikashvili during the American's visit to Sarajevo last week to send U.S. troops now to bolster the peacekeeping force. The mission already has more than 13,000 troops in Bosnia. But they have been overwhelmed by the demands of monitoring a 2-month-old cease-fire in Sarajevo and aiding in reconciliation between Muslims and Croats.
No further U.N. deployments to Gorazde are expected unless the United States agrees to provide ground forces despite the absence of a negotiated settlement.
Western relief agencies with field workers in Gorazde reported heavy shelling in the town center and mass expulsions of Muslims from surrounding villages.
Kris Janowski, spokesman for the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in Sarajevo, said as many as 2,000 Muslims had fled from perimeter settlements to the center but that the center was also under heavy artillery fire.