ZAGREB, Croatia — In the three short days since the United States broke ranks with European allies and gave up enforcing a U.N. arms embargo against Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Balkan conflict has dramatically escalated and the peace process has all but collapsed.
The abandonment of an embargo the U.S. government did not believe in may have been intended as a symbolic action to conform with an edict from the U.S. Congress.
But that policy shift, combined with more openly expressed U.S. sympathies for the Bosnian and Croatian governments and with recent battlefield successes by Bosnia's beleaguered Muslim-led army, has provided the back draft to inflame the Balkan conflict and widen the gap between Washington and its European allies.
At a meeting of European defense officials in the Dutch town of Noordwijk, concerned allies dispatched NATO Secretary General Willy Claes to Washington for emergency talks Wednesday concerning the widening differences within the alliance.
France and Spain have warned that they may have to pull out their Bosnia-based peacekeepers if more arms get through as a consequence of the U.S. decision to no longer take part in a naval blockade along the Adriatic Sea coast.
Bosnian Serb rebels expressed their anger over the latest political and military setbacks by attacking the hotel in Sarajevo, Bosnia's capital, that houses the U.S. Embassy and by blasting their way back into territory around the city of Bihac, scene of the first major victory scored by the Muslim-led Bosnian government in 32 months.
Croatian Serbs have joined the assault now threatening to vanquish the surrounded Bihac pocket--a move that would unleash a refugee crisis of proportions yet unseen in four years of Balkan turmoil and rekindle the war between Serbs and Croats that has been simmering beneath a U.N.-imposed cease-fire.
Fearful of a catastrophic influx of refugees from teetering Bihac, the Croatian government has been contemplating military recourse to quell Serbs in the breakaway Krajina area, and a renegade Muslim group has also been conscripted for the intensifying showdown over Bihac.
"We're very worried the conflict in Bihac could spill over the borders and lead to something unpredictable," said a U.N. official. "This could be the worst-case scenario for the whole region."
The White House decision to cease enforcing what was already a leaky embargo has emboldened the Bosnian government in its new and occasionally successful "octopus strategy" of waging numerous niggling offensives on widely scattered Serbian targets in order to tie down the heavily armed but demoralized rebel army.
By abandoning the embargo and entering into limited defense pacts with Croatia and Bosnia at this crucial moment, the U.S. Administration has also sent signals of support to the governments struggling to contend with Serbian occupation of their territory.
But the green light perceived by Sarajevo leaders for recovering land in the same way they lost it--by force of arms--could backfire on the government troops, as seen in the Bihac region over the weekend.
Bosnian Serb forces have recaptured virtually all of the territory around Bihac lost to the government offensive two weeks ago, said U.N. spokesman Thant Myint-U.
Western diplomats here in the Croatian capital also cite intelligence sources as indicating that as many as 5,000 Bosnian Muslims loyal to deposed warlord Fikret Abdic have been moved toward the Bihac front lines from a refugee camp in the no-man's-land sandwiched between rebel Serbs and Croatian government forces.
Those fighting-age men, some already defeated by the Bosnian army when it quelled Abdic's revolt in August, join what the Zagreb government claims are at least 2,500 paramilitary Serb troops from Krajina already fighting in neighboring Bosnia.
Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic appealed to Croatian President Franjo Tudjman over the weekend to "take all necessary steps" to prevent the Krajina Serbs from attacking Bosnian territory--an overture for collaboration being presented by the Croatian media in an unusually sympathetic light.
"What worries me is that the Croatian media have been preparing the public for any military action that might be contemplated," said one Western diplomat here.
U.N. officials confirmed that the Serbian onslaught continued Monday, and Bosnia's U.N. ambassador, Muhamed Sacirbey, claimed that four rockets were fired on the town of Cazin, near Bihac, from Croatian territory.
"We're very concerned about any possibility that a military solution might be pursued by the Croatian government," said Thant, the spokesman at U.N. Protection Force headquarters here.
In an effort to avert a suddenly looming crisis, the U.S. ambassador to Croatia, Peter Galbraith, has been counseling caution and urging Zagreb to seek a peaceful resolution.
But Galbraith has also put Croatia's rebel Serbs on notice that they are risking self-destruction if they continue to wage war across an internationally recognized border.