Western allies refused to deal with the Bosnian Serbs and pushed instead Thursday for a rapid deployment force to add muscle to their diplomatic efforts to free hundreds of hostage peacekeepers.
Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic warned that any attempt to rescue some 370 U.N. peacekeepers being held by the Serbs would result in butchery.
On the ground, the situation grew even more precarious as a Swedish U.N. civilian official was detained, Sarajevo ran short of food and fighting flared in the east and northeast.
The pilot of a French fighter jet on a reconnaissance flight over Bosnia reported that a surface-to-air missile had been fired, but NATO officials said they don’t know if the aircraft was the target. It was not hit.
The United States dismissed Serb overtures for talks on the hostage crisis but sent a top envoy to try to persuade Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic to isolate his former Bosnian proteges by recognizing Bosnia’s Muslim-led government.
The Serb rebels had called for immediate negotiations on the hostages - seized after NATO bombing raids last week - but insisted that NATO guarantee there would be no more airstrikes before the peacekeepers would be freed.
“We are not prepared to go into talks on that basis,” Secretary of State Warren Christopher said Thursday in Lisbon, Portugal.
Speaking on Bosnian Serb television, Karadzic warned against any attempt to rescue the peacekeepers.
“We constantly change their location,” Karadzic said, adding that any rescue attempt “would resemble a butcher’s shop. We must defend ourselves.”
He again claimed that the detained U.N. soldiers are “POWS because their commander ordered NATO bombings.” But he added: “They are in good condition, and I can send a message to their families that nothing will happen to them.”
Karadzic repeated demands that U.N. “safe areas” be demilitarized and that clandestine arms shipments to the government be ended as conditions for releasing the peacekeepers.
In Belgrade, U.S. envoy Robert Frasure offered new concessions to Milosevic, the region’s power broker, that effectively would lift U.N. trade sanctions and provide financial incentives if he recognizes Bosnia, sources said. The sanctions had been imposed on Serbia for inciting the war in Bosnia.
Hinting at potential rewards, which could include loans from international banks, Christopher said that “it would be useful to him in the future if he does emphasize that he is no longer an ally of the Pale Serbs.”
Meanwhile, British Defense Secretary Malcolm Rifkind said Britain and France would establish a rapidreaction strike force to protect peacekeepers which would be “robustly equipped to counter potential attacks on U.N. personnel.”
Formation of the strike force will be discussed by diplomats in Paris this weekend and by a meeting of NATO defense ministers next week.
Rifkind also welcomed President Clinton’s new flexibility in offering to send U.S. ground troops to Bosnia to help redeploy U.N. peacekeepers - not just to pull them out.
“It is certainly a significant change in the American position,” he said.Foreign Office minister Douglas Hogg said he expects Americans to be asked to help redeploy some peacekeeping troops.
More British soldiers and equipment arrived in Split, on Croatia’s Adriatic coast, following Britain’s decision to send up to 6,200 soldiers to reinforce and defend peacekeepers.
In Bosnia, Serbs detained a Swedish U.N. official Thursday in the Serb stronghold of Banja Luka.
“We were assured he hasn’t been mistreated,” said U.N. spokesman Chris Gunness.
In the Serb-besieged capital of Sarajevo, aid workers warned that hunger looms, and senior U.N. commanders pondered using force to open lifelines into the city.
Kris Janowski, a spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, said food stocks are running dangerously low in Sarajevo. He described the situation as “almost critical” in Bihac, a Muslim enclave in the northwest.
For weeks, Serbs have tightened their stranglehold on Sarajevo and government-held enclaves elsewhere in Bosnia by barring food convoys and shutting down the humanitarian airlift that supplies the capital.
The United Nations has only enough wheat flour in Sarajevo for one or two days, while 10 days’ worth of flour is stranded at the Sarajevo airport because of the Serb blockade.
One U.N. official, speaking on condition of anomymity, said using force to secure a road out of Sarajevo which was shut down by the Serbs three months ago remains a longterm option. But that depends on how many new foreign troops are sent to Bosnia.
“We cannot allow the people of Sarajevo to starve to death,” he said.U.N. officials also fear inaction will prompt the Bosnian government to try to lift the siege of Sarajevo on its own, unleashing a new round of violence.
Fighting continued for the second day in Gorazde, a Muslim enclave southeast of Sarajevo, where Serbs and government forces are battling over eight U.N. observation posts vacated by retreating or kidnapped peacekeepers.
Lt. Col. Gary Coward, a U.N. spokesman, said government forces apparently have captured some of the vacant posts.
U.N. officials reported 200 explosions Thursday around the eastern enclave of Srebrenica, another U.N. “safe area” for civilians. A battle also was raging in north-central Bosnia, around the town of Doboj.
The officials said three civilians were wounded Thursday in renewed shelling of Tuzla, Bosnia’s secondlargest city. Seventy-one people were killed there last week and 200 were wounded in Serb shelling of the government-held city.