As NATO warplanes bombed Bosnian Serb positions Friday for a second day, angry rebel Serbs captured U.N. peacekeepers, used them as human shields and said they would die if more airstrikes were launched.
Although officials differed on their figures, U.N. spokesman Alexander Ivanko said in a telephone interview from Sarajevo that a total of 145 U.N. peacekeepers and military observers were detained or surrounded by Serbs by Friday night.
The hostage-taking followed a second NATO airstrike in as many days on ammunition dumps near the Bosnian Serbs’ self-proclaimed capital of Pale. Serb leaders warned that a U.N. hostage would be killed for every subsequent NATO bomb that fell on Serb territory.
If NATO’s display of air power was supposed to cow the Bosnian Serbs into good behavior, it clearly produced the opposite effect. Now NATO, with all of its technological superiority, is locked in a deadly standoff with the militarily inferior Serb forces.
NATO and U.N. officials kept up a steady barrage of tough talk directed at the Bosnian Serbs on Friday, but at the end of the day it was NATO that blinked first. NATO took no action against the Serbs, who defied a noon Friday deadline for the withdrawal of all heavy guns from Sarajevo.
It was TV images of U.N. military observers chained to light poles, doors and bridges that stayed NATO’s hand.
One captive peacekeeper, chained to a bridge, spoke haltingly of the NATO airstrikes as “crimes against humanity,” but his words appeared to have been coerced.
The other hostages shown on Bosnian Serb television stood impassively and silently.
A transcript of a radio transmission from one of the captive monitors to U.N. headquarters in Sarajevo was released to Western news agencies.
“Be advised that it is extremely tense here right now,” the unidentified monitor reported to the U.N. command. “There is a crowd of civilians. One person loaded his pistol and was trying to kill us. I’ve been beaten already.
“Be advised that we are now handcuffed inside the car. We’ve been advised that the next bomb that falls, we’ll be killed.”
A few minutes later, the transmission is interrupted by a Bosnian Serb soldier, speaking in English, who says, “Three U.N. observers are now at the site of the warehouse. Any more bombing, they’ll be the first to go. Understood?”
Momcilo Krajisnik, speaker of the Bosnian Serb parliament, told Bosnian Serb television that the U.N. monitors “were arrested because they were guiding NATO planes that fired on our positions.”
Said Krajisnik: “Instead of respecting our hospitality, they were conducting illegal deeds. They will be kept in custody. If they are found guilty, they will be put on trial.”
According to U.N. officials, the hostages include two Russians, two Czechs, a Spaniard, a Pole, a Ghanaian and a Canadian.
The crisis brought other disturbing television images. These included shattered streets, screaming survivors and bits of blood-soaked debris - the aftermath of a deadly Serb artillery barrage Thursday evening on Tuzla, a so-called U.N. “safe area” in eastern Bosnia.
The Serb shells hit two crowded cafes. In all, 71 civilians died, U.N. monitors said. Bosnian Serb television blamed the Tuzla attack on Bosnian government forces, saying the government shelled its own citizens in order to blame the atrocity on the Serbs.
In terms of sheer horror, the Serbs would have to be declared the winner of this round with NATO, despite the destruction of eight Serb ammunition dumps by NATO planes. In retaliation, the Serbs killed more than 70 civilians, took U.N. peacekeepers hostage and flagrantly ignored two U.N. ultimatums.
President Clinton, who was a strong advocate of NATO airstrikes, said Friday: “The taking of hostages as well as the killing of civilians by them (the Bosnian Serbs) is totally wrong and inappropriate and it should stop.”
He urged Russian President Boris Yeltsin, whose country traditionally has close ties with the Serbs, to “call the Serbs and tell them to quit it.”
But with the lives of hostages now on the line, Clinton stopped well short of calling for more NATO airstrikes.
The current crisis brings into sharp focus the funda mental dilemma of the West’s response to the worsening situation in the former Yugoslavia: Serbs can flout international conventions with impunity because the West is unwilling to take casualties to put a stop to it.
U.S. officials, including Defense Secretary William Perry, said they had anticipated hostage-taking as a possible Serb response to airstrikes.
Indeed, the Serbs did exactly that last November - detaining about 400 U.N. peacekeepers after NATO planes attacked a Serb airfield. The U.N. reply was to call off the NATO strikes.
On Friday, Perry said NATO would not back down.
“I fully support the NATO action … I believe it will be a robust action, a vigorous action,” he said. “In time, it will achieve the expected result, but I don’t expect it to occur immediately.”
The Pentagon ordered the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt and the cruiser Hue City - carrying cruise missiles - to the Adriatic Sea, moving them into position to add substantially to NATO’s firepower in the region.
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