WORLD

UPPING THE ANTE

The U.S. Senate votes to end the arms embargo and threatens the Bosnia mission

RAE CORELLI August 7 1995
WORLD

UPPING THE ANTE

The U.S. Senate votes to end the arms embargo and threatens the Bosnia mission

RAE CORELLI August 7 1995

UPPING THE ANTE

WORLD

The U.S. Senate votes to end the arms embargo and threatens the Bosnia mission

While panic-stricken Muslim civilians fled and died in Bosnia’s dusty summer heat last week, the buck being passed among Western politicians pledged to help them finally stopped. At first, it appeared that the indecision might come to an end at a 16nation meeting in London on July 21, but those talks ended with only a vague threat of a “substantial” response if Bosnian Serbs attacked the UN-protected Muslim “safe haven” at Gorazde. Then last week, NATO ambassadors agreed to launch air strikes if the Serbs moved against the town. The next day, NATO amended its declaration, saying the raids would not take place without UN approval. UN Secretary General Boutros BoutrosGhali finally put an end to the impasse, delegating the decision on air attacks to his military commanders on the ground. That action, said a UN spokesman, was taken “in order to streamline decision-taking.”

But even as Boutros-Ghali took the leash off his longfrustrated field generals, the future of the United Nations’ humanitarian mission in the troubled region was suddenly placed in doubt. In Washington, the U.S. Senate voted to end the UN arms embargo against Bosnia if the peacekeepers leave or are asked to leave, raising the prospect that America would break ranks with its allies and ship arms to the embattled Sarajevo government. Britain, France and other European countries, including Russia, condemned the Senate resolution, most threatening—as Canada has all along—to withdraw their peacekeepers if the embargo is breached, on the grounds that supplying Bosnia with weapons would lead to total war. Predictably, Bosnian Prime Minister Haris Silajdzic welcomed the Senate’s stand but he was openly supported only by Turkey, one of eight Islamic states that have unilaterally declared the embargo to be invalid.

For the tens of thousands of frightened Bosnian Muslim refugees fleeing from advancing Serbian guns and tanks, the issue was survival, not politics. At midweek, Serbian Gen. Ratko Mladic’s forces, which had captured the former safe haven of Srebrenica and driven out thousands of refugees on July 11, overran Zepa, a second UN safe area, after a 10-day battle. A UN spokesman said that between 10,000 and 16,000 refugees and Bosnian government troops were in the town when it fell, leaving Gorazde as the only remaining UN-held sanctuary in southeastern Bosnia. The Bosnian government loaded more than 1,000 refugees from Zepa onto buses and drove them north, apparently to join additional thousands of Srebrenica’s refugees at the town of Tuzla, where officials feared they might

become the target of Serbian air attacks. The Serbs captured and disarmed 79 Ukrainian peacekeepers at Zepa. They also demanded the surrender and disarming of Bosnian government troops who, they said, would be held as prisoners of war.

At the enclave of Bihac in western Bosnia, UN officials said they were deeply concerned for the safety of 180,000 Muslims who have been trapped there for most of the war. By week’s end, Bosnian forces captured the towns of Grahovo and Glamoc—severing a vital supply link between Serb holdings—after fierce bombardments. Some 20,000 Serbian civilans fled the area. After taking Grahovo and Glamoc, the Croats said they were advancing toward Bihac, about 80 km to the north.

Meanwhile, the Bosnian Serb’s Gen. Mladic found himself making news off the battlefield as well. On Wednesday, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, a court established by the United Nations in 1993, weighed into the Balkan turmoil. It

‘Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic are charged with genocide and crimes against humanity, arising from atrocities perpetrated against the civilian population throughout Bosnia-Herzegovina, for the sniping campaign against civilians in Sarajevo and for the taking of UN peacekeepers as hostages and their use as human shields.’ —International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia

indicted both the general and his boss, Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, for war crimes—specifically, killing and deporting civilians and using UN peacekeepers as human shields against air attack. In addition, it accused Karadzic of crimes against humanity and genocide. Officials of the court, which sits in The Hague, admitted, however, there was almost no chance that either man would ever be tried because neither Serbia nor its Bosnian Serb allies recognizes the court’s jurisdiction. Still, said court spokesman Christian Chartier, UN member states had an obligation to arrest the two if the possibility ever arose. When the indictments were handed down, Mladic was meeting near Zepa with the UN commander in Bosnia, British Lt-Gen. Rupert Smith.

Ironically, if Mladic’s forces move against Gorazde and the UN military decides to use the air-strike authority given it by Boutros-Ghali, it could well be Smith who orders the planes into the air. The British general is regarded as more hawkish than his superior, French Gen. Bernard Janvier, overall commander of UN forces in the former Yugoslavia. The UN announcement that Boutros-Ghali was delegating the decision-making to his field commanders said that it had passed directly to Janvier, but that he could delegate it further to Smith “when operational circumstances so require.” American officials have said they wanted Smith and U.S. Admiral Leighton Smith, the head of NATO’s Southern Command based in Naples, to control air operations, not Janvier.

At midweek, reports circulated in Washington that French warplanes had already bombed the Serbs, but French officials insisted they had not embarked on their own secret air war. The stoiy originated on the previous weekend among reporters in Pale, the Bosnian Serbian headquarters 20 km southeast of Sarajevo, who heard a plane overhead and then several explosions. The Serbs refused them access to the area where the explosions occurred. A Paris newspaper

reported the following morning that a single French jet had dropped a one-ton bomb on Serbian headquarters—supposedly in retaliation for the deaths of two French peacekeepers. Two days later, the Americans said they had circumstantial evidence from a reliable informant close to the French government that the French had bombed the Serbs at Pale. A U.S. spokesman said that, officially, Washington was dismayed that the French had embarked on the mission without telling anyone “but unofficially, we think it’s wonderful.”

At week’s end, America’s allies, led by the French, were still fuming over the Senate vote to end the arms embargo. Prime Minister Jean Chrétien spoke for many when he vowed that Canada would pull its

troops out of Bosnia if the embargo is rescinded. Added Defence Minister David Collenette: “I suppose the implication behind lifting the arms embargo is to let both sides fight it out. I can’t believe that rational people today are going to take that attitude.” An angry French Prime Minister Alain Juppé, for his part, said that the Americans “would have to assume the consequences of the situation”—one of which would likely be a need for thousands of U.S. ground troops to assist a massive pull-out of UN peacekeepers.

During a news conference in the Vietnamese capital of Hanoi, Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev called the Senate action “totally incomprehensible,” adding, “We are against lifting the embargo because there are too many weapons.” Said the Russian: “Opening a new flow of weapons will, to my mind, be tantamount to fuelling an already burning fire.” In Athens, NATO Secretary General Willy Claes painted an even grimmer picture. “Giving more weapons does not create the conditions for peace,” Claes said. “Instead, the suffering of the civilian population will increase and there is no guarantee that the conflict will not enlarge into a Balkan war.”

In London, a British foreign office spokesman said that while the Senate vote was only the first step, “if the arms embargo is lifted, neither we nor most of the other troop-contributing countries would want to stay.” Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind, in a commentary published in a London newspaper, said it was “bizarre that we should respond to the suffering of the people of Bosnia by withdrawing what measure of assistance we can offer them and letting fighting escalate further.” Danish Foreign Minister Niels Helveg Petersen said the congressional resolution was “the latest culmination in the split in the West over Bosnia.”

The U.S. administration conceded even before the Senate voted that its Republican majority, opposed to the embargo, would win out. But the day before, President Bill Clinton vowed to veto any congressional attempt to cancel American support for the embargo. The Senate resolution, he said, was “a futile effort to find a quick fix to the Balkan conflict” and would, in fact, “make a bad situation worse.” It would require two-thirds of the 100-member Senate and the 435member House of Representatives to override Clinton’s veto. If the numbers materialize, said White House spokesman Mike McCurry, America’s allies will abandon the Balkans. “They’re going to hand the tragedy of Bosnia to the United States and say, ‘OK, you fix it/ ” But behind the smoke and flames of a seemingly interminable war, there may be little left to save in Bosnia.

RAE CORELLI with correspondents’ reports