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Serbia's Role in Bosnia Arouses Warnings in West

Milosevic's promises aside, fuel and arms reach Serbs there

WESTERN diplomats stepped back from the brink of a humiliating and potentially dangerous pullout from Bosnia this week and are back to a policy of just ``muddling through,'' analysts say.

The West hopes that with time, Bosnian government forces will become better armed while isolated Bosnian Serbs - cut off from their main backer, Serbia - will weaken and accept the ``contact group'' peace plan.

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But the West's linchpin in cutting off the Bosnian Serbs and pressuring them to accept the peace plan - Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic - already appears to be breaking his part of the bargain. Four months after he closed the border between Serbia and Bosnia to win an easing of UN sanctions and punish the Bosnian Serbs for failing to accept the peace plan, fuel, troops, and even antiaircraft systems appear to be crossing the border.

The new supplies are apparently being used in the Serb counteroffensive against the Bihac enclave and are severely restricting UN operations in Bosnia.

United Nations officials announced on Tuesday that new antiaircraft systems apparently shipped from Serbia have ended NATO's ability to provide air cover for peacekeepers in Bosnia. The admission spells danger for peacekeepers on the ground and casts doubt on the central Western belief that time is on their side and that ``muddling through'' may lead to the end of the war.

Time has instead shown that Mr. Milosevic is not completely cutting off the Bosnian Serbs, analysts say, and an increasingly impatient international community is showing signs it will give the Bosnian Serbs whatever they want to end the conflict.

``I always thought it was a huge mistake to rely on Milosevic,'' says Jane Sharp at the Institute for Public Policy Research in London. ``It's a measure of how bankrupt the policy is that we have to rely on him.''

Several recent incidents appear to show that Milosevic's border is far from closed:

* In the past two months, the Bosnian Serbs have established a new, comprehensive air defense network in western Bosnia.

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* An attack by Serb forces Monday that left one Bangladeshi peacekeeper dead and four wounded in the Bihac pocket and several attacks in Sarajevo were carried out with sophisticated, wire-guided Saggar antitank missiles that Bosnian Serb forces apparently did not have available to them in the past.

* French and United States photographers arrested last week in a Serb-held part of Croatia and severely beaten by Serb soldiers, said their interrogators told them they were from Belgrade.

* Sources say large amounts of fuel are being smuggled or sold over the border between Bosnia and Montenegro, rump-Yugoslavia's other republic.

The reports of border leaks come a week after a UN-sponsored commission reported that the border has effectively been sealed for the last month. Critics say the few hundred observers are not enough to police a border that stretches for hundreds of miles.

``The assumption is most of the [missiles] are probably being directly supplied by the Serbian military,'' says Dan Nelson, a Bosnia arms expert at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va. ``Let's face it, the embargo is an absolute sieve.''

But embargo supporters say the majority of goods are being stopped and the UN sanctions that prompted Milosevic to cut off the Bosnian Serbs will work.

``At the end of the day the circumstances will work against the Serbian side,'' a diplomat says.

But the West's shift back to ``muddling through'' could lead to an impatient international community, which is already offering the Bosnian Serbs confederation with Serbia - to go one step further and grant them their demand that they be recognized as an independent state - something the Bosnian government and critics decry as Munich-style ``appeasement.''

``I do think that the British and French policy now is to solve the war at any cost .... The real tragedy is that there's no one in Washington or Bonn with the [guts] to stand up to them,'' Ms. Sharp says. ``It's like Pontius Pilate, they're all washing their hands of it.''

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