Bosnia plunged deeper into crisis Sunday with the death of its foreign minister, whose helicopter was shot down by Serb forces, and another round of hostage-taking that left the United Nations and NATO powerless to stem the violence.
As of last night, the tally of U.N. personnel held by Bosnian Serbs had climbed above 300. The latest were a contingent of British soldiers, 33 of whom were abducted Sunday from observation posts around Gorazde in eastern Bosnia.
With so many peacekeepers in jeopardy, there was no more blustery talk of fresh NATO airstrikes. Indeed, the United Nations seemed paralyzed with indecision.
“Deteriorating rapidly,” is how Chris Gunness, the U.N. spokesman in Zagreb, assessed the situation. “It is evolving to a point where we need clear guidance from the U.N. Security Council.”
The killing of Bosnian Foreign Minister Irfan Ljubijankic and six other passengers in his helicopter throws another complication into the already explosive brew. Throughout the 4-day-long crisis, Bosnian government forces have held their fire at the urging of the United Nations, but this latest casualty raises the likelihood of retaliation.
Ljubijankic, 42, was shot down on his way back from a meeting in the Bihac enclave, in northern Bosnia at the Croatian border.
While the confrontation between the Uni ted Nations and Bosnian Serbs is escalating, it is Bosnian citizens who have been taking the brunt of the abuse. After the initial NATO airstrikes Thursday that set off the crisis, the Serbs took vengeance by shelling a strip of outdoor cafes in Tuzla - killing 71 people in one of the deadliest incidents of the war.
Bosnian Serbs kept up the relentless pressure Sunday. Another shell killed a man in Tuzla, while mortars exploded around the narrow pass over Mount Igman, the only access route into or out of Sarajevo.
The Sarajevo airport, where the U.N. airlift brings the primary source of food for 350,000 residents, has been closed for seven weeks. Two days ago, the Bosnian Serbs also cut off electricity, water and gas from the besieged Bosnian capital.
The tension in Sarajevo is heightened by the large quantities of U.N. equipment stolen by the Bosnian Serbs in the last four days. The Serbs now have at least 11 armored personnel carriers, six light tanks and three jeeps - all painted white, with U.N. markings.
The fear is that Bosnians and U.N. personnel alike could fall for a ruse such as the one Saturday morning, when Bosnian Serbs masquerading as French peacekeepers took over a key observation post in the heart of Sarajevo.
Also Sunday, eight Canadian soldiers were taken captive in Visoko, west of Sarajevo.
The United Nations said that more than 300 soldiers were under some form of restraint by the Bosnian Serbs - some chained to potential NATO targets as human shields, others simply confined to their own barracks.
Two thousand Marines from Camp Lejeune, N.C., were being transferred from Sardinia to positions in the Adriatic Sea, where the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt was headed, said Lt. Col. Michael Wood of the U.S. Army.
One possible mission would be to assist in an evacuation of U.N. personnel.
Serb television released new video footage Sunday of French peacekeepers handcuffed to one another, sitting on the floor at an undisclosed location near Sarajevo.
“We are indignant that U.N. soldiers are being detained in this way. These are U.N. soldiers, peacekeepers. We are not anybody’s enemies,” said an angry French general, Arnold Schwerdorffer, the contingent commander for the French forces.
Although France has by far the largest number of detained soldiers, 172 as of Sunday, Schwerdorffer insisted, “It is the international community that has hostages, not France, the Ukraine, Russia or Canada.”
Nevertheless, forging a consensus about what to do next to resolve this crisis is proving exceedingly difficult. In New York, ambassadors from the 31 nations with peacekeepers in the former Yugoslavia met during the weekend and expressed widely divergent views.
According to U.N. sources, only the Dutch and representatives from some Islamic countries favored further airstrikes.
“We have no direction about what to do next,” said a senior U.N. official in Zagreb, who asked not to be identified by name. “Our only direction is to keep treading water, while at senior levels of the world powers, they are deciding what to do.”