The Bosnian Serbs on Tuesday edged closer to a formal state of war with United Nations peacekeepers, declaring them an enemy, annulling all agreements with them and threatening the life of a spokesman.
The defiant statement from the Serbs, who released six French soldiers but continued to hold more than 320 peacekeeping troops hostage, came as British forces arrived in the Croatian port of Split with a mission to reinforce the U.N. mission in Bosnia by providing it with artillery for the first time.
About 2,000 U.S. Marines and a French aircraft carrier moved closer to the Adriatic coast, 120 miles southwest of Sarajevo, in a show of force that seems unlikely to lead to any immediate action but underscored the gravity of the hostage crisis.
A state of extreme tension prevailed in Sarajevo, with the city’s streets largely deserted, water and electricity supplies cut, NATO fighter planes circling overhead and jumpy French soldiers at U.N. bases pointing machine guns at any approaching vehicle.
In taking peacekeepers hostage as insurance against further attack since NATO twice bombed a Serbian ammunitions dump last week, the Serbs have also seized at least six U.N. tanks, 12 armored personnel carriers and more than 25 armored jeeps. They are thus able to disguise themselves as peacekeepers with ease.
“They’ve got what they need to look like a company of peacekeepers,” said one U.N. official. “It’s very worrying.”
Meeting in their stonghold of Pale, nine miles from Sarajevo, the political and military leaders of the separatist Serbs issued a statement accusing the United Nations and NATO of “flagrant interference in the conflict” and “siding with one party.”
The statement added, “All Security Council resolutions, all NATO resolutions and all accords with the United Nations, which have been abused, are declared void.”
The U.N. headquarters here responded by accusing the Serbs of disregarding international law “on a scale unseen in Europe for years” and flouting “civilized principles of behavior.”
Never before have the Serbs and the commanders of the 3-year-old U.N. mission here traded vitriol with such intensity.
In an atmosphere of extreme bitterness, it is unclear whether a U.N. peacekeeping mission - at least a nominally impartial one dependent on the acquiescence of the Serbs as well as the Muslim-led Bosnian government - can continue to function.