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Military Response Favored To sarajevo Mortar Attack

By Michael Dobbs
The Washington Post

As the United States launched a new round of shuttle diplomacy to bring peace to the former Yugoslavia, Western governments found themselves embroiled in a more immediate test of wills with the Bosnian Serbs following a devastating mortar attack in Sarajevo.

A senior U.S. official said Washington favors a "military response" by the United Nations and NATO to the shelling of Sarajevo's main market, one of the most serious attacks on civilians in the city during 40 months of fighting. He said there was no doubt the Serbs were responsible for the attack and speculated that it could have been deliberately timed to derail a peace mission to the former Yugoslavia led by Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke.

Officials said Holbrooke discussed possible responses to the attack with Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic during more than four hours of talks Monday evening. Bosnian officials said the shelling raised questions about the credibility of American threats to punish the Bosnian Serbs if they refuse to agree to a peace settlement.

"This is the first serious test of the American ability to lead the international community" in bringing about a peace settlement, Bosnian Foreign Minister Muhamed Sacirbey said in an interview. "If the United States is to have any credibility at all, then it has to respond to what happened today."

Western governments condemned the attack in Sarajevo, which killed at least 37 people. Before his meeting with Izetbegovic, Holbrooke insisted that the attack would not delay the peace process. "It will only make us redouble our efforts," he told reporters.

Holbrooke is scheduled to fly to Belgrade Tuesday following meetings here with Izetbegovic and the five-nation Contact Group on the former Yugoslavia. Before leaving Washington, he warned the Bosnian Serbs that they face the possibility of NATO airstrikes if they obstruct the U.S. peace initiative.

A senior U.S. official said the final decision on how to respond to Monday's shelling in Sarajevo will rest with the U.N. commander, Gen. Rupert Smith, under new rules of engagement worked out in July. "Smith has the key," the official said. "We hope he will use it."

While they said they are convinced that the Bosnian Serbs were responsible for the shelling, some U.S. officials said it could be the work of an extremist Bosnian Serb faction determined to wreck the peace process. One official noted that the shells were fired from territory controlled by notoriously maverick fighters.

Even before Monday's mortar attack, U.S. officials were predicting that Holbrooke would face an uphill battle persuading the Bosnian Serbs, and their Serbian patrons in Belgrade, to sign on to key points in the U.S. plan, which would require the Serbs to give up a significant proportion of their territorial gains. Much will depend on his ability to convince the Serbs that this time Washington is serious about its threats of dire consequences if they continue to defy the will of the international community.

The American strategy, as outlined by U.S. officials, is to attempt to isolate the Bosnian Serbs by first reaching an agreement with Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic. In return for lifting U.N. sanctions against Serb-dominated Yugoslavia, Milosevic is being asked to recognize both Bosnia and Croatia in their prewar boundaries, and to cut military ties with the Bosnian Serbs.

During an initial round of shuttle diplomacy earlier this month, which was interrupted by the deaths of three U.S. negotiators in a road accident, Milosevic repeated his willingness to recognize Bosnia in return for a lifting of sanctions. But U.S. officials said he balked at recognizing the prewar boundaries of Croatia, a move that would amount to abandoning Serb claims to the oil-rich region of Eastern Slavonia, around the town of Vukovar.

U.S. officials hope that recent military successes by Croatia, combined with Western diplomatic pressure, could cause Milosevic to change his mind. In an attempt to make it easier for him, they reportedly are willing to consider a transitional arrangement for Eastern Slavonia that would place the region under temporary U.N. administration, prior to its return to Croatia.

"This is the first time that the Serbs are on the run," one U.S. official said, referring to the Croatian victory over Serb rebels in the Krajina region last month. "It will be very hard for Milosevic to recognize Croatia, but the alternative could be even worse.