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Lost Contact on Bosnia

AN important opportunity to confront the carnage in Bosnia was again missed last weekend. After the Bosnian Serbs rejected the peace plan of the ``contact group,'' the ministers voted merely to tighten the sanctions on Belgrade.

We urge the West to be more resolute in light of the terrible consequences that this vote of inaction is having on the innocent in Bosnia. It ought to come as no surprise that this week, following the contact group vote, which Bosnian Serbs will interpret as weakness, we are witnessing increased sniper attacks in Sarajevo and the crumbling of the 12-mile NATO exclusion zone around that city. The NATO zone was formed after the marketplace massacre in February that killed 68 civilians; its lesson is that, faced with clear resolve, the Serbs will retreat. Now that resolve is being squandered.

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Serb President Slobodan Milosevic in Belgrade is issuing stern warnings to the Bosnian Serbs to behave, and to sign the peace plan. Yet no one, at this late date, ought to be fooled by such theater. This is the same act the Serbs put on during the Vance-Owen ``ultimatum'' in June 1993. It strains credulity to believe that after three years of responsibility for war and racist propaganda and lives lost in a ``Greater Serbia'' push, these blood brothers will split over a feeble threat of sanctions.

This week a two-part series in the New York Times details the collusion of the Serbs in the death camps created two years ago. Not only do Serb eyewitnesses and participants directly implicate the Yugoslav Army in the operation of the camps, they also point out that the camps were not ``detention centers'' as the Serbs claim, but extermination centers where up to 100 people a night died.

We again urge the United States to act. President Clinton has a new European team of former ambassadors Richard Holbrooke and John Kornblum to help.

First, the arms embargo on the Bosnians must be lifted so these victims can defend themselves. At a minimal level, the embargo can be lifted as a way to honestly acknowledge the failures of the contact group.

But there are better reasons to lift the embargo. Fundamental principles such as the Helsinki Final Act and the United Nations Charter are at stake. Also, it would be wrong to keep mislabeling this conflict as an ancient feud in which all sides are equally guilty. Additionally, the West bears some responsibility for the way this conflict has undermined a multiethnic democracy.

Lifting the arms embargo will be difficult. The better rationale for doing it would open the door for air support for Bosnians attacked during an interim period. And the NATO exclusion zone must be defended vigorously for obvious reasons of credibility.

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