Responding to Sarajevo’s steady slide back into terror and isolation, the U.N. commander in BosniaHerzegovina issued an ultimatum on Wednesday threatening NATO air strikes if heavy weapons in the capital were not quickly silenced.
The commander, Lt. Gen. Rupert Smith, of Great Britain, warned Bosnian Serb forces and the Muslim-led government to stop using the banned heavy guns by noon today. He added that four guns taken by the Serbs from U.N. weapons-collection sites in recent days must be returned by the same time.
Smith, who has been largely passive as the streets of Sarajevo have emptied in the face of renewed Serbian shelling and sniping, said heavy weapons within 12 miles of the city center must be removed or placed under U.N. control by noon Friday or NATO planes would attack.
Under the terms of a NATO ultimatum in February 1994, there are supposed to be no heavy weapons within this 12-mile radius. But a steady weakening of NATO and U.N. resolve has allowed the Serbs to move many guns back into the area and to shell the city with impunity.
The worst incident occurred on May 7, when 11 people were killed by a Serbian shell that slammed into Butmir, a suburb. Smith called then for NATO air strikes but was overruled by the senior U.N. civilian official in the region, Yasushi Akashi.
The decision brought a storm of protest from American officials, including President Clinton.
Since then, the situation has steadily deteriorated. Heavy fighting rocked Sarajevo on Wednesday, particularly the Debelo Brdo hill, south of the city center. At least 5 people were killed and more than 20 injured.
Dozens of shells exploded on front lines, sirens wailed throughout the city, and downtown streets were empty, U.N. officials said. In some areas, thick white smoke filled the air, apparently billowing from white phosphorus grenades fired to intimidate civilians. The grenades, banned under the Geneva convention on the use of chemical weapons, can cause severe burning.
The ultimatum from Smith amounted to a last-ditch effort to reassert at least a modicum of U.N. control over a quickly deteriorating situation in which peacekeepers have increasingly looked like helpless bystanders.
The United States is also putting strong pressure on the United Nations to assume a more resolute stance in Bosnia rather than pull out.
A withdrawal, which is under intense discussion at U.N. headquarters in New York, would almost certainly require a vast NATO operation and the presence of American ground troops, something the Clinton administration would rather avoid.
Such a withdrawal has been threatened repeatedly by France and Britain, the two main contributors of troops to the U.N. force.