Disguised in French uniforms and blue United Nations helmets, and driving a stolen armored personnel carrier, Bosnian Serbs bluffed their way into a U.N. observation post at a Sarajevo bridge Saturday, taking a fresh round of hostages and plunging the United Nations and NATO deeper into crisis.
By the end of the disastrous day, two more French peacekeepers were dead and 10 wounded, most them in a firefight to recapture the observation post. Moreover, U.N. officials here acknowledged that the Bosnian Serbs now hold more than 200 of its people captive.
In New York, the U.N. Security Council met in emergency session behind closed doors. Its president, Jean-Bernard Merimee, who is also France’s U.N. ambassador, emerged later to declare the United Nation’s “determination not to yield to blackmail.”
For all the tough talk, though, it appeared that was exactly what was unfolding. With U.N. peacekeepers humiliatingly handcuffed to poles and munitions bunkers as human shields, NATO held back Saturday from fresh air strikes such as those on Thursday and Friday that precipitated the crisis.
Instead, Saturday saw a flurry of diplomatic forays and military posturing.
The U.S. aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt has been sent to the Adriatic Sea off of Croatia’s coast to bolster the U.S. presence in the region, and the French Navy also dispatched a carrier and two escort ships Saturday.
At the urging of the French, Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev and Defense Minister Pavel Grachev flew to Belgrade to confer with the government of Serbia, while U.S. Defense Secretary William Perry cut short a visit to Naples, Italy, to meet with the German and British defense ministers in London.
“Now is the time to show international solidarity,” Perry told reporters. “An important principle is at stake. What is being threatened here is not just the U.N. soldiers on the ground in Bosnia but the ability of the international community to perform peacekeeping operations.”
It all began before sunrise with an audacious feat of derring-do by the Bosnian Serbs.
At 4:30 a.m., the Bosnian Serb commandos - disguised in their pilfered U.N. uniforms and vehicle - sneaked into the heart of Sarajevo, speaking in French to get through a U.N. checkpoint. Reaching an observation post at the Vrbana Bridge, they easily overpowered 12 French soldiers and took them hostage.
The United Nations did react swiftly and forcefully to this latest trespass. At about 8 a.m., 30 French soldiers returned to the post with light armored tanks. A heavy exchange of fire ensued, in which one French soldier was killed, as was one Bosnian Serb. Half of the post was recaptured by the French.
Fred Eckhard, a senior U.N. spokesman in Zagreb, described the storming of the post as another sign of the United Nations’ new, more forceful response to the Bosnian Serbs.
“This hasn’t happened before. It was extraordinary in peacekeeping terms,” said Eckhard. “We feel were are keeping up the pressure in Sarajevo - except now on the ground, instead of in the air.”
Still, the United Nations’ use of force clearly had not lessened the peril for peacekeepers on the ground. Less than an hour after the firefight at the bridge, another French soldier standing guard near Sarajevo’s Jewish cemetery was killed by a sniper bullet in the head.
Also Saturday, eight Russian members of the U.N. peacekeeper force were overpowered by Bosnian Serbs and added to the roster of hostages.
In a telephone interview from Sarajevo, U.N. spokesman Jim Lansdale said at least 207 U.N. personnel in the besieged city are being held by the Serbs. About half are in various U.N. weapons collections sites that have been stormed by the Serbs, while others simply are confined to their own barracks - unable to leave because of mines planted at the exits.
The military observers who had been chained as human shields on Friday were taken overnight to Serb barracks and allowed to sleep and eat before being shackled again Saturday.
“We spoke to one this morning, the Canadian who you saw on television with the glasses. We were relieved to hear from him,” said Lansdale. “They are being reasonably well treated, although obviously the manner in which they are being held is distressing to them.”
Another U.N. peacekeeper, a Swedish major identified as Mike Calmhede, was shown on video footage broadcast from Serb military barracks near Sarajevo, saying, “The only thing is that we have had no food. But we have slept well during the night.”
U.N. officials have maintained frequent telephone contact with the men’s Bosnian Serb captors, negotiating privately for their release.
“After three years in Bosnia, we know them. They know us. It is not spiraling out of control, but it is eyeball to eyeball,” said Eckhard, the U.N. spokesman in Zagreb.
According to U.N. sources, the United Nations is trying to negotiate the exchange of the captured Serbs for some of the peacekeepers.