Panicked residents of the eastern enclave of Zepa besieged U.N. posts and pleaded for the world’s help Saturday as Bosnian government soldiers battled Serbian rebels threatening to overrun the U.N.-designated “safe area.”
Bosnian Serb troops, fresh from the capture of the nearby “safe area” of Srebrenica, shelled Zepa for a second day, and skirmishes were reported on the southwest edge of the Muslim enclave. U.N. peacekeepers again came under attack - not from the Serbs this time but from government forces who demanded that they surrender their weapons.
U.N. officials privately conceded that Zepa was likely to fall soon, succumbing to the same horrifying fate of Srebrenica, whose 40,000 Muslim inhabitants were brutally expelled by their Bosnian Serb conquerors.
Refugees from Srebrenica, crowded into tents, school buildings and makeshift shelters in government-held territory Saturday night, have said the Serbs kidnapped and raped young women and killed an unknown number of people. The whereabouts of as many as 15,000 men and some women rounded up by the Serbs remain unknown.
The loss of the protected enclaves brings the Serbs closer to all-out victory in the 39-month Bosnian war even as they flout international law and ignore worldwide condemnation. For the United Nations, the failure to save the enclaves is the latest in a long series of humiliations that have damaged the world body’s credibility and made more likely its withdrawal from the former Yugoslav federation.
Fifty-five Dutch U.N. peacekeepers who were taken hostage when the Serbs rolled over Srebrenica were freed Saturday, U.N. officials said. They were reported to have arrived in neighboring Serbia, but only after the Bosnian Serbs had stolen their jeep, tank, weapons and fuel, Dutch officials said.
The Serbs have portrayed the Srebrenica rout as a defensive action to stop Muslim “terrorists.” Extreme nationalist political parties in Serbia - intellectual patrons of the Bosnian Serbs - praised the eradication of the “threat” represented by a Muslim enclave virtually on Serbia’s border.
Immediately after their victory in Srebrenica on Tuesday, the Serbs turned to Zepa, home to about 16,000 mostly Muslim refugees who had already fled Serbian “ethnic cleansing” once before in the war, when Serbs drove non-Serbs from their homes in much of BosniaHerzegovina.
Knowing that they are outgunned by the Serbs and won’t be defended by the United Nations, government soldiers and Zepa civilians surrounded U.N. observation posts there and demanded that the Ukrainian peacekeepers inside surrender their weapons.
The Ukrainians, who number only 79 in all of Zepa, fired warning shots to disperse the crowds. But late Saturday, government forces returned and mined a road leading to one of the Ukrainian posts, U.N. spokesman Alexander Ivanko said.
Bosnian Serb radio reported that the government soldiers confiscated the Ukrainians’ weapons, but U.N. officials in Sarajevo denied that.
Overnight, in the nearby enclave of Gorazde - the third of the three, vulnerable “safe areas” in eastern Bosnia - government soldiers stole five U.N. vehicles and fired grenades and machine guns at a U.N. barracks, which burned, U.N. officials said. No one was injured in the attack.
Such actions by government troops reflect the desperation they feel at what they see as abandonment by the international community after having agreed to the creation of the ostensibly demilitarized “safe areas” two years ago despite concerns that the inhabitants would be vulnerable to attack.
“We expect the U.N. … to intervene and prevent the aggressors from taking Zepa, where the civilian population has been left to the mercy of the aggressors,” Zepa Mayor Mehmed Hajric said in an urgent radio appeal.
Zepa’s ham radio operators said Saturday that the town was being attacked from several directions, but U.N. monitors could not confirm reports of infantry assaults.
Military analysts said that the lay of the land in Zepa, which rests in a canyon, could allow the Serbs to capture the town without actually entering it.
“They need not move inside,” said a senior military officer from a North Atlantic Treaty Organization country. “They can control Zepa from the hill.”
On its nightly newscast, Bosnian Serb television did not focus on Zepa but showed footage of Srebrenica. Its streets were deserted save for a handful of Serbian soldiers and security agents. Signs saying “Srebrenica” in the Cyrillic alphabet used by the Serbs were tacked up on walls.
“Life is returning to normal,” the broadcast reported. It invited “all Muslims who don’t have Serb blood on their hands” to return to Srebrenica.
Television, one of the Serbs’ most powerful tools in its propaganda war, also reported on the opening of a gallery exhibition in Grbavica, a Serb-held suburb of Sarajevo. It featured horribly graphic photos of mutilated bodies purported to be Bosnian Serbs slain by Muslims.
As the television camera lingered on the bloody pictures, Biljana Plavsic, the hard-line “vice president” of the self-styled Bosnian Serb Republic, spoke in solemn tones of the victimization of the Serbs.
“Serbs are suffering, and we must all come together and fight against our enemy,” she said.
The intractable issue of Bosnia has vexed the world for the last three years, and as the situation on the ground deteriorates rapidly, so does international resolve and cooperation.
Military commanders from Britain, France and the United States are scheduled to attend an urgent meeting today in London. France is pressing for military intervention, and French President Jacques Chirac has scolded his Western allies for what he called a failure to act that ultimately appeases the Serbs. That brought an angry response from Britain, who with France has the largest number of troops in the U.N. mission in Bosnia.
In London today, the French are expected to detail their proposal for using the rapid-reaction force to shore up the Gorazde enclave by airlifting reinforcements to the eastern pocket, possibly with the use of U.S. helicopters. The French will also promote plans to open a supply route into Sarajevo.