Despite NATO airstrikes, Bosnian Serbs overran the beleaguered safe haven of Srebrenica on Tuesday, sending tens of thousands of refugees scurrying in panic along with the hundreds of U.N. soldiers who were supposed to be protecting them.
The fall of Srebrenica marks the first time a protected area has fallen to the Serbs and pushes the West closer to a decision to withdraw all U.N. troops from BosniaHerzegovina.
Such a move could involve as many as 25,000 U.S. ground forces, government and private analysts said Tuesday.
The incursion by the rebel Serb militia into the U.N.protected zone in Srebrenica effectively destroys the last bit of credibility that the West had in the eyes of the Bosnian Serbs and the Muslim-led Bosnian government, these analysts say.
“It must call into question our safe-haven policy and raise fundamental questions about the U.N. presence in Bosnia,” U.N. spokesman Chris Gunness conceded grimly in the Croatian capital of Zagreb Tuesday night.
Plunging the United Nations further into crisis, the Bosnian Serbs have once again seized U.N. peacekeepers as hostages - this time 30 Dutch soldiers. There were conflicting reports Tuesday night that the battalion commander who had ordered the airstrikes was in custody and that the Serbs had threatened to kill him.
In a last-ditch effort, NATO planes Tuesday afternoon bombed two Bosnian Serb tanks that were attacking the Dutch soldiers trying to protect the town.
Angry, anguished Bosnian government officials blasted the United Nations Tuesday for failing to act sooner to stop the Bosnian Serb onslaught and they renewed demands that the United Nations redefine its mission or get out. “The NATO (response) was too little, too late,” said Prime Minister Haris Silajdzic, who had been in radio contact with Srebrenica. “The people of Srebrenica have been sentenced to death. … The betrayal is complete.”
By evening, the United Nations acknowledged that Srebrenica had fallen under Serb control.
As night fell, up to 30,000 Bosnian Muslims were fleeing with the Dutch soldiers to Potocari, a partly destroyed village at the northern end of the besieged enclave where the United Nations maintains a military base.
“It was a massive exodus. All these people were fleeing under shelling,” said Stephan Oberreit of Doctors without Borders in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, after speaking with two agency workers who had fled with the refugees.
“There is nothing in Potocari but destroyed houses. Our staff are treating people under bushes. There are 7,000 liters of water available per day for 30,000 people,” he said.
U.N. officials acknowledged that Srebrenica’s collapse was a potential humanitarian and logistical nightmare. There is hardly enough food at the U.N. base for the Dutch peacekeepers, let alone the refugees, and the enclave is surrounded by a sea of hostile Serb forces.
“It is a dire humanitarian situation, and that is a grave understatement,” said U.N. spokesman Rida Ettarshany Tuesday night from Zagreb. “We have reports of about 30,000 people in Potocari, 5,000 in the U.N. compound itself, which is designed for 200. Food and water are nonexistent.”
The nearest accessible city that is solidly held by the Bosnian government is Tuzla, 45 miles to the northwest, but getting the refugees to safety there would require the permission of the Bosnian Serbs.
Srebrenica (pronounced Srehbren-eet-za) is a former silver mining town near the Drina river that forms the border between Bosnia and Serbia. Its population had swelled from 37,000 to 45,000 as a result of the campaign of terror launched by the Bosnian Serbs to rid the surrounding villages of their Muslim inhabitants.
In April 1993, Srebrenica was the first of six Bosnian towns designated a safe haven under a now widely discredited U.N. experiment in giving the beleaguered Muslims asylum from the ethnic cleansing.
Now the major powers and the United Nations must decide - possibly within the next few days - whether the United Nations finally is prepared to back up its diplomatic and humanitarian efforts with the military power needed to protect its peacekeeping troops.
U.S. and allied officials have scheduled a series of critical meetings today - at the United Nations, in NATO and in the five-power Contact Group that is leading the effort to secure a peace settlement - in an effort to hammer out answers to such questions.
Analysts say that, if the United Nations proves unwilling to allow NATO to act forcefully to protect U.N. peacekeepers, the pressure for a complete withdrawal will intensify - quite possibly with new impetus from the Clinton administration, which seems to be losing patience over the Bosnian situation.
In an unusually blunt warning Tuesday, Defense Secretary William J. Perry declared that the take-over of Srebrenica “raises the question as to whether the U.N. force will be able to stay in Bosnia to perform the humanitarian mission.” And Gen. John M. Shalikashvili, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, disclosed that the United States has warned its allies that U.S. planes no longer will help enforce the “no-fly” zone over Bosnia if NATO is not allowed to destroy Bosnian Serb missile batteries pre-emptively.
“We are now at a point where we need to balance the safety of (NATO) pilots flying in this operation against the damage that would be done should we terminate” enforcement of the “no-fly” zone, he said. He added the issue “is being discussed” among the Western allies.
The United States has pledged to help evacuate U.N. peacekeepers who find themselves in danger - both in emergency situations and if the United Nations orders a full-scale withdrawal - but administration officials insisted that no such moves were imminent.
White House press secretary Mike McCurry said Washington is looking first to a new 10,000-member European rapid-reaction force being set up to help defend U.N. peacekeeping troops to make the first efforts to evacuate the Dutch forces.
McCurry said, as far as he knew, neither NATO nor the United States has received any request from the allies to take part in such an operation. Some 2,200 Marines are waiting on ships just off the Bosnian coast, but officials say that force is not big enough to do the job.
The rapid-reaction force is still being assembled in Bosnia. U.S. officials said initial elements of the British and Dutch components of the force already are in Bosnia, while French units are expected to arrive in a few days.
U.S. and NATO officials say one factor hampering any quick decision on rescuing the Dutch troops is that authorities still are unsure whether the peacekeepers are in danger and whether the Serbs will permit them to move from their current positions. “It’s not clear what the situation is on the ground,” U.S. Adm. Leighton W. Smith, commander of NATO forces involved in the Bosnia operation, said in a telephone interview. He said allied commanders have gathered on his flagship to review their contingency plans.