YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

NEWS ANALYSIS : Bosnian Government Victories Unlikely to Mark Turning Point in War


SKOPJE, Macedonia — This time, instead of Serbian nationalist rebels conquering territory for a Greater Serbia, it was Muslim-led government forces rolling over huge swaths in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

This time, instead of Muslim women and children being driven from their homes, it was Bosnian Serb civilians fleeing in terror from a battle in the northwestern region known as the Bihac pocket.

Few analysts of the Balkan conflagration, ignited with the breakup of the Yugoslav federation, see this first major drubbing of Bosnian Serb rebels by the underdog government forces as any kind of turning point in the protracted, roving war.

Rather, the more than 100 square miles recovered by the government army probably provides a glimpse of the deadly win-some, lose-some way of the future in a country now hopelessly trapped in a cycle of attacks and retaliation.

The successful government offensive, including the apparent gain Thursday of the key western town of Kupres, also has enhanced the suspicion among many observers that the international community has lost its influence with the Bosnian combatants after too many empty threats and unfulfilled promises.

The White House has characterized the stunning government advance in the Bihac region as a legitimate counteroffensive by government forces after 31 months of being on the receiving end of a Bosnian Serb land grab.

President Clinton's advisers have even suggested that the blow dealt to the Bosnian Serb rebels should pressure them to accept a last-chance peace plan proposed to the combatants five months ago.

But the offensive that scored the government's greatest victory since the Serb rebellion began in March, 1992, suggests that the Bosnian leadership has given up on any prospect of a fair peace plan and has chosen to use the tactics of its attackers in changing boundaries and gaining political power with brute force.

That the offensive was successful this time, reportedly restoring the towns of Kulen Vakuf and Bosanska Krupa to the Muslim-led government's control, will probably only encourage officials in Sarajevo to spurn diplomatic initiatives; they claim these efforts reward Bosnian Serb aggression and have prompted the Bosnian government to seek a more equitable settlement on the battlefield.

Besides routing Bosnian Serb forces near Bihac, including from the village of Ripac from which the nationalist rebels had been shelling Muslim homes, government troops near Sarajevo also advanced nearly two miles toward the town of Trnovo. That has put them within striking distance of a strategic supply route from Bosnian Serb-held territory around the capital to rebel troops and communities farther south.

Flush with those successes, the government army dealt a serious setback to the Bosnian Serbs on Thursday by taking control of at least part of Kupres, the first capture of an important town from the Serbs since the early days of the war. The takeover of the town, reported by media from all factions, was accomplished with the aid of the Bosnian Croat militia that had fought against the republic's Muslims for most of last year.

The U.N. refugee agency was sending food, blankets and materials for temporary shelter to the Bosansko Grahovo area, where more than 10,000 Serbian civilians were taking refuge, as well as to Bosnian Serb-held territory across the nearby Croatian border, where an additional 1,500 refugees had gathered.

Radovan Karadzic, the self-proclaimed president of Bosnia's rebel Serbs, has put the world on notice that he will not let the government victory pass unchallenged. "Our enemy wants war, and he shall have it," vowed Karadzic, uncharacteristically clad in military garb, at a front-line rally broadcast on television throughout much of the former Yugoslav federation. "This is our land and will remain so."

Sarajevo, which had been spared most heavy artillery shelling since a NATO threat to bomb rebel hardware in February, last weekend suffered its deadliest attack since that ultimatum, with at least two capital residents killed and seven wounded.

U.N. military sources confirmed that Serbian rebels in the disputed Krajina region of Croatia, which flanks the Bihac pocket to the west, had massed tanks and heavy guns to back the threatened counteroffensive, but that no sign of a major Bosnian Serb mobilization had been detected.

The escalating conflict prompted warnings from the U.N. Protection Force in Bosnia that both sides could face punitive air strikes unless they ceased their offensives.

Serbian shelling of Sarajevo underscores the rebels' blatant violation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization ultimatum under which all heavy artillery was to have been withdrawn from a 12-mile radius of the capital or be subject to destruction from the air.

Los Angeles Times Articles